September 20, 2015 – More precious than silver

Pentecost 17   September 20, 2015   Psalm 1, Proverbs 3:5-15, Mark 9:33-37; James 4:1-10          More precious than silver

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Last Tuesday our family went to the outer cape. At sunset we were walking at Coast Guard Beach. Warning signs were posted, saying: “Great White Sharks are in these waters, eating seals every day. Do not swim anywhere near the seals…” Seals were swimming close to shore as we walked…And…

As we walked along we heard a sound like crying and singing… As we walked a little further, we saw many seals – seventy or eighty at least – lying on a little barrier island sand dune… Singing a song so mournful, it was like the wind was crying… I wondered if the seals might be singing funeral hymns for seals eaten by sharks… It sounded that sad… (That’s probably my run-away imagination. But who knows?) Later someone told me seals were probably singing a sunset song, like a vespers prayer. Seals apparently do that…. But whatever the reason for seals singing, it was both quite sad and very beautiful at the same time… (and…)

The letter of James tells us we too should be singing sad songs… “Lament and mourn and weep,” James says… For the world is badly broken…and…

Sometimes we need to be told to mourn, because we humans are often in denial about our need to express sorrow… Some of us have been taught not to weep, because that’s allegedly a sign of weakness… (Stiff upper lip, old chap, the British used to say, at least in the movies.)

But sometimes by grace and with help from our friends, we figure out… crying can be a good thing… As a teenager I learned to love Ray Charles singing weepy soulful ballads (like–) “Oh it’s crying time again, you’re gonna leave me...” And a bit like the soul and blues I grew up with… but on a much deeper level…

The bible is full of sad songs. A good half of all the psalms are psalms of lament – basically sanctified blues… And James today says “Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection….”

Weep and mourn… For so many children of God are lost, hurting, and dying… in so many places, for so many reasons…

And so often we tend to glaze over…There’s so much visible human tragedy…We sometimes develop calluses on our souls…We fear having tender hearts, which, we’re told, break more easily… So we neglect to mourn and weep… for those who are hurting… and even for ourselves…

But Jesus said “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted…” And James says “let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection…” Are James and Jesus trying to bring us down? Being real downers?

Or – could it be that Jesus and James know what the seals know…What every little human infant child’s also born knowing: Crying and weeping is the best way to let God (and mom and dad) know our need. Humbling ourselves before God is still the most direct route to right relationship with the Maker of the universe…

And are there not always plenty of good reasons to mourn? Should we not weep because this world – and most families – even the church… are so often torn by conflicts?

(And… ) “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” The letter of James asks. What’s the cause of wars, fights, quarrels, and conflicts…among you and within you? (Notice, we’re not talking here about little polite disputes, given the tone of James’ language.) And the answer to ‘what causes fights and quarrels among you?’ – is really not terrorists – nor Democrats – nor Republicans – nor liberals or conservatives… Or any other external targets….(Not that any are guilt-free, but…)

The root cause of fights, wars, and nasty quarrels among us, the bible says, is us – wanting what we should not want. Coveting.

James calls us “unfaithful creatures” – “adulterers” in other translations – because when we lust for money, power and things of the world we’re being unfaithful to God.

The tenth commandment tells us – you shall not covet your neighbor’s stuff. But – the more we have the more we want. When we’re coveting and don’t get what we want we murder. Not literal murder, usually… (Though a lot of murder happens in disputes over wealth and natural resources.) And it doesn’t have to be literal killing to be murder. ‘Anyone who hates brothers or sisters in Christ is a murderer,’ the first letter of John tells us. And adultery and murder are among the strong words the bible uses – for just doing what the gods of this world tell us to do: Spend our lives making more money than we need… So we can spend more money than we ought to spend… To buy more things than we need or even know what to do with… Because Big Brother of the Marketplace tells us: This is what life’s all about… And James says “Don’t believe the big lie.”

Last week James was using strong words to warn against words that wound and kill. This week he’s using more strong language, talking now about life’s priorities. James’ older brother Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything else you need will be added to you also…” Jesus also said, “No one can serve two masters. You can’t serve both God and money.” (Robert Louis Stevenson, the author, once said, ‘Christ said we cannot serve both God and money – but all of our teaching is designed to try to do both…anyway.’)

Now James says what Jesus said, only a little differently – ‘whoever wants to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.’

James isn’t talking about “the world” the poet Robert Frost speaks of in the words he had inscribed on his gravestone: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” Frost was talking about “the world” a bit like Jesus was talking also, when he said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” Jesus indeed gives his life for the life of the world that God so loves… Jesus has a lover’s quarrel with the world… And we remember…

Words often have multiple meanings. When he says we can’t love God and love the world, James isn’t talking about the world that God so loved, the world God made by his spoken word and blessed and called good… He’s talking about the man-made world of money-power-and-selfish-desires. The world we construct for ourselves through our own self-serving thoughts, words and deeds.

And James is saying we do have to choose. We really can’t love God and the world of our own making also… It’s got to be one or the other…

When we sing – Lord, you are more precious than silver. Lord, you are more costly than gold. Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing I desire compares with you… When we sing the song…. Do we mean it?

James is challenging us to put our money where our mouth is…and lay our lives on the line.. ‘For where your treasure is,’ Jesus says, ‘that’s where your heart will be also…’ And if we really believe nothing we desire compares with Jesus – our lives should bear testimony to our love of God above all else…

Which gets us to the words of another hymn, “Dear Jesus, in whose life I see – all that I would, but fail to be – let thy clear light forever shine – to shame and guide this life of mine.”

We need a healthy sense of humility. And shame is not always a bad word… Knowing our real failings – and our real dependence on God – is necessary. As the Proverb says, we need to “Trust in the Lord with all our heart, and not rely on our own insight.” We need to keep placing God’s wisdom and understanding above our own… God’s wisdom, which, the Proverb again tells us, “is better than silver… better than gold… more precious than jewels…”

And sometimes it takes a little gentle shaming for me to remember my priorities… I confess to feeling a little shame a week ago at a district day event, in the presence of my pastor colleague, Rebecca Lambert, who spoke about how she and her husband have taken church members who have been homeless into their home, sharing all they have. People ask (she said) ‘aren’t you worried about stealing?’ “We’re not worried,” she said. “Because everything we have is only stuff. And those we welcome into our home are people…”

I know I’m still falling far short of the goal of undivided love of God above all the things of the world – the goal Jesus and James hold out for us. I believe the bible is right in all it says about the perils of wealth and worldly success… I agree with Jesus and James – the path to hell is paved with the pursuit of silver and gold, diamonds and oil and power… But there are days, I confess, when I’m singing – Lord, you are more precious than silver. Lord, you are more costly than gold. Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing I desire compares with you… And even while I’m singing, I catch myself thinking… ‘Yes, but… I wouldn’t mind a little more silver and gold… along with Jesus…’

Which may be why James says, “God yearns jealously for the Spirit that he has made to dwell in us…” God is called a jealous God in scripture. Not jealous in the sense of envious of anyone or anything. Jealous only in the sense of wanting the true love and full attention of all of us whom God has gone to the trouble of creating, blessing, and redeeming, at the very greatest of costs…

And James says our human unfaithfulness to God should cause us to weep… Because we are made in the image and likeness of God – designed by God to live forever with God, in steadfast love and faithfulness, joy and peace…

So our human systemic failure to live as we ought to live… is the very deepest of all tragedies…Far more tragic than bodily death… So… Mourning and weeping and humbling ourselves before God is still the path that leads to life and life eternal… For Jesus said – those who mourn shall be comforted…And only the path of humble lowly service leads to God’s Kingdom.

But – Good News. We will get to the Kingdom… On time…As long as we keep traveling with Jesus… The One who put himself last and made himself servant of all… The One who embraces little children as ambassadors of his Kingdom, and loves us (and the seals also)… And weeps with us, still, as we weep together… for the world which God so loves…

Thanks be to God. Amen.