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Worship and Sermons
September 30, 2018

“Holding It All Together” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, September 30, 2018, Year B / 19th Sunday after Pentecost – Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 •  Psalm 133  •  James 5:13-20  •  Mark 9:38-50

THEME:  Keep Jesus at the center to unify our faith community in his love.

                                                         

As football season gets under way, I’ve been amazed at how many players have already been injured.  Some of them were even injured before the start of the regular season. 

I read a stat this week that said, over the past 5 years, an average of 23 NFL players have been injured before the end of the preseason.  25 more can expect to be injured over the course of the season.

And at the top of the list of the most serious injuries are ligament injuries, especially injuries to the Anterior Cruciate Ligament, or ACL. 

When a player tears an ACL it’s a season-ending injury.  It can keep a player out of commission for a full year.  The reason is simple:  the ACL is one of four ligaments that hold the knee together.  It provides 90% of the stability of our legs.  Without healthy ligaments holding the knee together, we can’t stand.

I think James is making a similar point with regard to Jesus.

This morning we reach the conclusion of the letter of James.  These are his parting words to congregations eagerly anticipating the return of the Messiah’s.  James sums up his wisdom by what seems to be a haphazard list of practical instructions.

Number one on his list is prayer.  He encourages his fellow Christians to learn from faithful forebears like Elijah.  Even in the midst of natural and political drought, God heard and answered Elijah’s prayers in powerful ways.

Elijah, he says, is just like us, so we should pray just like him, with the same confidence that God will hear us and answer us. 

So, are you suffering?  Pray to God for comfort and relief.  Are you happy?  Then, by all means, sing your prayers of praise to God above! 

Are you sick?  Then call the Elders.  They’ll bring anointing oil. Their prayers will amplify its healing power, making you whole in body, mind and spirit.

Have you sinned?  Confess your sins to God and one another. The sins we hide are like a cancer on our souls.  They darken our spirits and poison our relationships.  

But, when we trust others with the painfulness of our failings, we invite them to confess their own.  Then, together, we can share the joy of Jesus’ forgiveness, freeing us from the power our sins hold over us.

If your neighbor fails to recognize their own sin, and wanders away from the truth, seek them out. Talk with them and invite them back. Because restoring them to the community is a blessing to them and the whole church.

We would all agree these are wonderfully practical instructions to strengthen any faith community.  But that’s all James gives us – it’s a very abrupt ending.  No grand, concluding exhortation.  No inspiring vision of the glory of Jesus’ return.  Just a handy to-do list. 

Can that really be all there is to this letter?  Hmm. Maybe that’s why Martin Luther called it a book of straw.

But hang on a minute.  If we look below the surface, there is a theme that runs through this passage, and the entire letter.  It’s like a melody throughout a song.  What James wants for these churches more than anything else is unity and love.  Everything he’s written leads to that.

It’s what he had in mind when he warned them not to be double-minded, thinking they can pay lip service to their faith while embracing the world’s values.

It’s what he had in mind when he called them to an authentic faith, faith expressed in acts of love toward their neighbor. 

It’s what he intended when he warned them to watch what they say because words have great power, both to harm and to help.

His central message for the 1st century church is this:  there is one, and only one, reliable source of love and unity.  God has to be the focus of their lives, uniting them with him and one another through Jesus Christ.    

That’s his message for us.  Jesus is the source of our love and our unity.  He’s not only the head of the church.  He’s the connective tissue, the ligaments that bind us together in the body of Christ.

Friends, we need that unity now more than ever.  You and I are swimming against cultural currents that are pushing us further and further out into the rough seas of individualism, and away from the safe harbor of unity.

It’s no secret that we live in one of the most individualistic societies in the world.  Recent shifts in culture and technology have made us even more that way.

It turns out this trend is a worldwide phenomenon.  Recently a team of Canadian and American researchers studied over 50 years of data on individualistic practices and values across 77 countries. 

They analyzed things like changes in household size, the percentage of people living alone, and divorce rates. They also considered shifts in cultural values like the importance of friends versus family; teaching children independence or obedience; and preferences for self-expression.

One of the lead researchers, Henri Santos of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, described their overall findings.  He said, “The data indicate that, overall, most countries are now moving towards greater individualism.”

Sadly, we are getting lonelier as a result.  A recent survey reported in Time and other media found that the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985.  Almost 25% of Americans have no close confidants at all.  And loneliness is most acute among our youngest adults, the Millennial generation.

This is something predicted by the great Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman.  Before his death last year, he was Professor Emeritus at Leeds University England.  He claimed that one of the great phenomena of our postmodern era is that more and more of us no longer live in true communities.

And we try to replace them with networks, especially social media networks.  As he points out, there is a world of difference between the two.

Real communities ask something of us – face-to-face interaction, conversation, compassion and compromise for the mutual good.  Because of our mutual accountability, communities control our self-centered inclinations.

Social networks, on the other hand, are under our control.  We can add and delete friends with the click of a mouse.  We can ghost whomever we choose (for those of a certain age, that means ignore them).  We can say whatever we please without having to worry about an awkward face to face encounter. 

In social networks, there is little real human connection.  Consequently, there is little or no accountability to one another – and even less possibility for real community.

The good news for you and me is the church is one of the few places left in today’s world that can offer true community.  The bad news is we often have trouble acting like it. 

That was as true in James’ day as it is in ours.  That’s why his solution of keeping Jesus at the center is as important for us as it was for him.

The genius of James – and the thing that Martin Luther missed – is the way he takes Jesus’ Great Commandment and turns it into practical steps for Christian communities. 

How do we love God with all our being?  We pray to him in all circumstances.  We praise him, putting him first in everything we do. 

How do we love our neighbor?  We put their needs on a par with our own and we physically help them.  We choose our words carefully in order to build others up, not tear them down. 

We readily and openly confess our sins against them and God, and we encourage them to do the same so all of us can be reconciled.  If they go astray, we go after them – we invite them back. 

This is the nitty gritty of putting the Great Commandment into action.  It’s how we make Jesus central not only in our individual lives, but as a faith family.

When he’s in the center, he joins us to God and one another like a knee ligament joins our leg bones together.  The result is unity.  That unity is built on God’s love - received and reflected in Jesus Christ.   

That doesn’t mean we never argue or have conflicts.  Afterall, what family doesn’t fight?

What it does mean is we listen to one another.  We admit when we’re wrong.  And above all, we don’t let conflict get in the way of loving one another, just as nothing can separate us from God’s love when Jesus is at our center.

That’s what a true faith community is like.  And, at our very best, it’s what this community of faith is like.

We are never more unified and stronger than when we consciously center our common life on the one who loves us and gave his life so that we might have life. 

That’s how we are meant to be the church. 

So, friends let’s make sure we keep Jesus in the center of all that we do and say here, especially when conflicts arise. 

Just like our knee ligaments hold our legs together and allow us to stand, so does Jesus hold us together.  And that is what allows us to walk together, side-by-side on our faith journey with him.

May it be so.

 

Last Published: October 1, 2018 1:57 PM
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