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Living In-Between: A sermon for these times

Text: James 1:17-27

Beloved ones, we are meeting today in an anxious and in-between time. Since our last meeting, we have said goodbye (too soon) to our executive presbyter Penny Hill, and we do not yet know when a new executive will come. We are grateful for the capable leadership of Jane Fahey in these days, but still. It is an in-between time.

Since our last meeting, we have survived a harsh and divisive election season, and we await the transition to a new president of our nation. Some of us are relieved, perhaps even hopeful about change. Others are deeply worried about the future of the nation. We see political divides in our presbytery and in our churches, as well as in our country. Many of you may feel caught between friends or family members of opposing views. We don’t quite know what the future will bring. It is an in-between time.

Some of our congregations are in-between pastors, or between budget years, awaiting final numbers on stewardship campaigns. All of us are between liturgical seasons, getting ready to turn the page into another Advent, with its own curious pace (both waiting and hurrying toward Christmas) . . .

Between-ness, transition and change: this seems to be characteristic of the age we live in.

Such transition, change, such between-ness can make us afraid. In our fear, we lash out at those whom we perceive to be “the other”. Those people who think differently, look differently, act differently from ourselves. In such times as these our anger arises easily, our suspicions and fears make us quick to judge . . . or we may be paralyzed by the amount of change, and unable to act at all.

Here’s the odd glimpse of good news, though: as Christians, we are uniquely suited to live into such a season of Between. For we are the ones whom James calls “first fruits” of God’s creatures. He says, “In fulfillment of [God’s] own purpose, he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” [1:18]

Being “between” is our native land. Think of it: we are the ones who affirm “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” For two thousand years we have been Between Jesus’ coming and the coming again, between Pentecost and Parousia. We specialize in these suspended seasons between goodbyes and hellos. We have been given the wisdom, the word, to face this season that lies before us.

As human beings, we are hard wired to be anxious about change. It is as natural as breathing to be on the alert when we are in unfamiliar territory, to fight or flee in order to protect ourselves and our tribe. Our markets show this anxiety. Our blood pressure shows this anxiety. But as Christians—and I want to say, especially as Reformed Protestant Christians—we have an alternative wisdom that can help counter such fear. Because when things around us are in a state of flux, it is more clear than ever that political parties, economic systems, leaders– even beloved leaders–, and yes, even churches, are not eternal. They come and go. Or to put it another way: they are not God.

My fabulous former theology professor Doug Ottati (who now teaches at Davidson College) was once on a panel discussing the question: “what is Reformed theology?” He said something that has stuck with me years later: one thing all Reformed Christians know is this: if you walk into a room, you can go up to any person there and say, “Hey, I know you. You’re not God.”

Times of Between show us very clearly what is not God.

Who then is God? And where is God at work in these times of Between? James offers this portrait: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

Or in other words: (sing verse of “Great is Thy Faithfulness”)

At least two things are clear from this verse: God is generous, and God is faithful. Even if we stop receiving, God does not stop giving. Even when the world is in turmoil and we cannot see clearly the way ahead, God is faithful. “There is no shadow of turning with thee,” as we just sang together. Even if we stop listening, God does not stop speaking.

So what is our job? Our job just maybe is to stop long enough to look around and listen for the Word that continues to echo across the universe and through the ages. It might mean putting down your phones at times. It might mean looking up from the incessant stream of updates on social media, or pollsters and pundits on the news channels. But stop. Look. And listen for evidence of the life-giving Word that is at work. And tend that seed.

James weaves the theme of the Word through the passage we heard for today. Did you notice? He mentions the Word three times (really. I did not make this up because three is a magic number, or because I am an unabashedly Trinitarian theologian). Here’s what he says:
• The Word of truth, which is from God, gives us life.
• This Word is implanted in us.
• We are called to be “doers of the Word”—so this word bears fruit.

First, God is the one who has birthed us by the word of truth. Already we have been given this word, which is life. “Let there be light,” says God in the beginning. And there was light. “In the beginning was the Word,” says John, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” This is the life-giving Word: that God has from the beginning already been shining into the darkness, that in Jesus Christ, God has already walked in the darkest places. Before we speak any words ourselves, God has already spoken. Grace precedes us.

Second, this word is planted within us. James says, “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” [1:21b] The word that is life, and light, does not just remain outside of us, but by God’s grace it settles deep within us. Through Jeremiah, God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts: and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” [Jer. 31:33] The word implanted within us is that same “law” inscribed on our hearts, that word that says, “you are my beloved people. Do not fear. I am with you. Come with me.”

How do we nurture such a word so that it takes root in our lives? It takes space, and time. It takes suspending our own quick tempers and judgments, and clearing space together to listen. “Be quick to listen,” says James, “and slow to speak, slow to anger. For your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

The image here is of a patient gardener. We are at the end of gardening season, at least most of us, for this year, but even the most forgetful and haphazard gardeners (like myself) know what James is talking about. Lots of things grow quickly in a garden, and the most enthusiastic plants that appear and multiply and take over are usually weeds. If we do not watch and tend, clearing away what James calls the “rank growth,” then the tomatoes and squash and okra will get choked out. We will never get our gumbo, or our squash casserole.

Weed the garden. Dig up those satisfying tendencies to judge and to lash out, and put them on the compost pile. Tend the implanted word—that word that is Life, and Light, and Love—that Word that has the power to save your souls. This all takes time. It is not immediate or easy. But it is possible.

And friends, strange as it may sound, we have an opportunity at meetings like these to practice just such quick listening and slow speaking. We come from a variety of places and perspectives, north and south and east and west of Atlanta, gathered around one table, listening for the one word of life. Maybe we should think of this as gardening practice. How– even here, even today– can we clear away the hurtful words and suspicions so that we may welcome with meekness the implanted word that has already been entrusted to us?

The word brings us life. That same word is planted within us, so that we may welcome and tend it. But fellow first fruits, in the end, we are summoned to be more than listeners. James calls us to be “doers of the word.” It is important that this is third. We cannot do the word unless we first listen and tend it. But then we do and we must act in keeping with the word, in order to bear God’s life and light into the world that so desperately needs it.

Scholars have pointed out that “doer of the Word” is a Semitic phrase, revealing James’ Jewish roots, because the usual Greek use of this term would mean “poet”—someone who does things with words. But the word is not external to James. He cannot do something with it; it does something with him. He calls on his audience to allow the word to take root and grow in them so that their lives are outworkings of its power.

Last weekend I was on a retreat with some students from Columbia Seminary. We were grateful to be able to use the retreat house owned by Decatur Presbyterian Church, up at Lake Lanier, for our time together. Friday night we gathered in a circle and read this passage, listening for what God might be speaking to us at the end of a hard week. I confess that I was particularly listening to hear “what is this word that we are supposed to ‘do’?” I know God gives us birth by it, and it is implanted in our souls, and we are supposed to do it, but what finally is it that we are to DO?

And when we got to the end of the passage, I heard it with stark clarity: James says, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

That’s it. To be a word-doer is simply to love those whom the world has treated as unlovable. It is to look for the ones who are the most crushed by systems of power and oppression (widows and orphans, in James’ day), and care for them. Rather than following the cynical and power-hungry ways of the world, it is to place ourselves as beacons of light in the darkness, even as God has shone light into the weary darkness of the world.

The Word which gave us birth, and which is implanted, and which we are called to “do”, is the same Word: Love. The word of creation, Sinai, and Jesus Christ, in whom is the new community, is the same Word: Love. The word is “let there be light” and “I am the Lord your God” and “love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself”. Light and law and love—these are all one.

So I have a word to add to my theology professor’s wisdom. “Hey, I know you: you’re not God.” So true. So vital. And also this: “I know you. You, angry, weary, vulnerable, exploited, ignored, crushed. You. You are God’s beloved child.” That is the word we are called to do.

Between the times, God has already given us what we need: the Word, which is love for one another and for the whole wounded world. The word is this: in spite of appearances to the contrary, God is faithful in love, and so should we be. Do not lose heart. Do not fear. Tend the garden, especially the most vulnerable plants that need particular care. Stop, look, and listen for that word. And then: just do it.