September 6, 2015
An odd title for a sermon, huh? Can you play a few notes of the popular tune Heidi? This song, “Starry Starry Night or Vincent”, was based on the painting “Starry Night”. I had to take Art History in college, it turned out I really enjoyed the class quite a bit. We did study the Painting “Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh. It is a famous painting of swirling clouds, bright stars and a crescent moon-shown of course on your bulletin cover. Beside this famous painting, van Gogh is perhaps best known for cutting off his ear. What I want to tell you about today is a much lesser known aspect of this famous artist. Both his father and grandfather were pastors and Vincent sought admission to seminary but failed his entrance exam. He then volunteered to the mission field and served at an impoverished community of coal miners in the South of Belgium. This was not a sought after site, pastors were often sent there as punishment. Vincent preached and ministered to the sick and the very poor; he drew pictures of the miners and their families. He earned the nickname, “Christ of the Coal mines.”
One day, a baker's wife with whom van Gogh had boarded saw him and asked why he had given away his good clothing. Vincent van Gogh replied, “I am a friend of the poor like Jesus was.” Unimpressed, the baker's wife told him, “You are no longer normal.” No longer normal. If we truly follow Jesus in our lives, I suspect that people would discover that we are no longer normal either. In today's world, that is not what most people want to be told. We want to fit in, be normal. Christ calls us to be abnormal.
The instructions in James describe what society normally does. A person enters a place, even a church, with evident signs of wealth; gold rings and fine clothes, and we tend to show special attention to that person. James writes of the sin of making distinctions based on the appearance of wealth or poverty. The wealthy already have more power, remember the Golden Rule—those that have the gold makes the rules. But it is not to be like that for the Christian. Paul warns us against the judgments we make, even as he makes some generalizations of his own, “ Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” That is a normal reaction in our society today—there is a real divisiveness with the so-called 1% getting tax breaks while the poverty rate continues to go up. I'm not getting into the politics of the whole thing, it is a fact that it is a normal part of our lives today to have class divisions. Just as it appears to have been in James' day.
Jesus said the poor would be with us always. We as a church work hard at being open to sharing our gifts with people in need. Our deacons fund is getting a real workout this summer. We have that to help individuals through a particularly hard time—it is not a solution to anyone's problem but a stop gap. We, the deacons, have made the decision to be quite non-judgmental in who we help. Pastor Fred Craddock tells about his first church which he served while in seminary. They had a fund called the “Emergency Fund” that had about $100 in it. They told their young pastor he could use it at his discretion, provided he dispensed the money according to the conditions the governing body of the church had set. He asked what the conditions were. The chairman told him, “you are not to give the money to anybody who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness or poor management.” Craddock says, “Far as I know, they still have that money.”
This passage is not about how society views the rich or the poor, but about how followers of Jesus should. We are not called to be part of the norm but to live out the love and grace shown to us in Christ. The middle portion of our passage speaks of judging. After explaining that failing to follow any portion of the law makes us culpable of the whole law, James tells us, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” There's harshness here with mercy. James writes that judgment will be without mercy to those who show no mercy. We are to speak and act under the “law of liberty”. An interesting phrase found only in the book of James, here and in chapter one. What is the law of liberty? In James 1, the phrase is “the perfect law, the law of liberty”. It refers to the gospel. Technically, the gospel is not a law comprised of dos and don'ts but a declaration of pardon by Christ and eternal life through Christ. For the Jews who, as we talked about last week, were accustomed to fulfilling the requirements of the Law to attain righteousness, this phrase highlights the nature of the new covenant-not adherence to law but grace through Christ. We then are strongly encouraged by James to live out the grace we've received to others, to show mercy...or be judged without mercy.
James' teaching on law and grace, on works and faith highlight a struggle that many of us have in our faith journeys. We want to live a good life, we want to avoid sin and evil. Yet our sin-nature continually draws us toward sin and evil and then we face guilt and wonder about our salvation. The law of liberty gives us hope; in that we understand that only Christ fulfilled the law perfectly. And as we turn to Jesus in faith, we are freed from our bondage to sin. Not free to sin; free to obey God in the power of the Holy Spirit. And free to live in hope that Christ's perfect sacrifice releases us from the sentence of death given when Adam and Eve first broke the covenant.
The world looks at the Christian faith and sees restrictions instead of freedom. They see judgment instead of grace. But we are not of the world. We are called to be abnormal...different from the world's way of thinking. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12: 2) We conform to this world when we hold on to prejudices—either against the rich for being greedy and lording it over the rest of us or against the poor when we see them as lazy, stupid or unworthy. Our minds are to be transformed so we see all in the image in which they were created; the image of God their creator. The rich—creative, generous, job producing are not to be judged as a group of selfish and ;uncaring. The poor, blessed by God...according to Luke who said blessed are the poor and didn't add “in spirit”. James wrote, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” They may be working two jobs, doing all they can to support a family. We don't know their story; God does so we don't judge.
Living in and giving grace...sounds good. But it doesn't just happen. It happens as God becomes the priority in our lives. If you aren't experiencing grace; if you feel unable to give grace, check out your spiritual efforts. God isn't forcing even grace upon us; received or given. I wrote in this month's newsletter, “Spiritual growth doesn't happen automatically when we become a Christian. It is an intentional effort we make with God's help through the Holy Spirit.” Christian apologist and evangelist Ravi Zacharius said in his radio program on Wednesday, “The most important thing is your life is your personal devotional study each day. If you fail there, you'll fail everywhere.” That's a strong statement, and it is hard to set aside time to be with and learn of God. It's not normal to set the alarm even 10 minutes earlier so you can read and pray. But if you aren't...perhaps it explains the lack of grace in your life. It is not a do this or else thing, but we need to make room in our lives for the Spirit to work.
I started with Vincent van Gogh. His life was all about Jesus while he committed his life to Jesus. And he wasn't normal. The Syrophoenician lady in the gospel passage today, it was not a normal encounter. She was a gentile and a woman and there was to be no contact between her and a Jewish man—remember last week, this contact defiled a Jew. It was perhaps normal for Jesus to be rude to her considering a gentile dared approach him with her request for healing. It was not normal for him to acquiesce to her request—love won out. It is not normal for the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. Not normal for Jesus to love us while we were yet sinners. Not normal to give grace when judgment is in order. But we don't serve a “normal” God. And so we shouldn't live a normal life. If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, give what you can. James wrote that if you show partiality, you commit sin--so be less judgmental. Like what was written of van Gogh, “He understood that unconditional love of God extended to unconditional love for others.”; so should we show God's love to others.
We are blessed with the law of liberty, we've received mercy, been redeemed from sin and empowered for service. As we draw nearer to God, we draw nearer to God's loving nature and we can love better. And our love for others proves the the reality of our faith...as James makes clear. May we love as we have been loved. Amen.
Hymn I Need Thee Every Hour 340 HLC