Sunday, July 20, 2014

Where There is. . .

Where There Is. . .
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 20, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
James 3: 13-18

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.[1]

I tell you it is nice to be back. Vacation was great though. It is always nice to get away and change up the routine. Do new things. It was an eventful trip. I finished the trifecta of ministry. I had long since done baptisms and have done a few funerals, but during the course of vacation I got to do my first wedding, which was just awesome. It was extra special because the groom is one of my closest friends, and it was great because I hadn't seen him in a long time, so the reunion was nice. The ceremony was fun too, it was at the beach in Hilton Head. . . . long trip, though, but since it was outside and at the beach I wore this robe, but with flip flops. I sang a song that I had written a few years back, "Each Grain of Sand" and that was cool, and then I gave the wedding homily, and this was probably the coolest part for me. I wrote it for my friend, he has been through a lot in the last few years, and so I wanted there the homily to reflect that darkness and light, that light shining through the darkness, that God bringing light in those darkest of places, And I also decided to make it that much more personal by using some quotes and allusions from one of our favorite song writers, Robert Earl Keen. I ended up weaving in 30 throughout the homily. . . I had the idea the night before. . . I was listening to his music, and I was struck by how each song just worked. I thought of my friend in some of those hard moments listening and it pulling him out. So that was cool, it created levels of understanding. Some people liked the homily and completely missed that extra meaning. But the coolest part was afterward, because I shared it on the internet, afterwards, and sent it to Robert Earl Keen himself, and he shared it. He wrote to me, how much he loved it, and how creative he thought it was. I was busting, because this is one of my heroes reading my work, sharing it, and therefore allowing it to reach a much wider audience: almost 600 people in just five day. People from all over the country, some commenting, and thanking me, it was awesome. So that was a personal high of the trip.
The rest of the trip was fun too, mostly routine, walking on the beach, playing and swimming with the girls, midday nap, trying to figure out what to have for dinner, then dinner, beach again after dinner, girls staying up too late, bed, then do it over and over again, rinse and repeat. Intermixed there was a lot of time to think, a lot of time to read, when I could keep my eyes open. . . sometimes that was the hardest. . . the sun, and those girls can run  you ragged, but one other aspect of life there at the beach is DeAnna's father watching the news 24 -  7. And it seemed like the news over the last three weeks just kept getting worse and worse. Maybe that is always the case when the news is on. I know that if all you do is watch the news, you'll have a very warped sense of reality, a really bleak outlook on the world, and you'll be constantly looking ahead to the next hour when they are finally going to show you how to protect yourself. Isn't that the case. . . the how to protect yourself segment is always an hour away, but some how you make it, you survive the extra time without that precious knowledge. Somehow we make it through. But there did seem to be a lot of bad stuff going on the last few weeks. Craziness and lawlessness at our borders, missiles, retaliation, and invasion in Israel and Gaza, surrounded by protests and division over who is to blame, and who is justified, and who is right, and who is wrong. Then planes being shot down. . .  again missiles . . . again who is to blame? Why? What? What's next? These are all very fragile and delicate situations, pushing to a head a world on the edge, putting to the test all of the systems we've put into place. .  . and who knows what it all means, and where we go from here. You could find many words to describe it all, but "disorder and wickedness" surely fits. And that is a phrase from our passage from today. James writes in his epistle: "
16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind." The message puts it "Things fall apart and every one ends up at everyone's throats"

I've noticed in my studying of James lately, that he really has a knack for getting to the bottom of issues and putting it all on the line, getting right to the business. Isn't it interesting though what is going on here. Envy and selfish ambition lead to disorder and wickedness, to things falling apart. . . Is envy then our problem? I think we certainly are in a spot where there is disorder and maybe you could call it wickedness, people are certainly divided and at each other's throats,. . . if not yet. . . it does seem like more is on the horizon, but definitely things seem to be falling apart. . .  and envy is certainly all around us. Class envy, race envy, privilege envy, gender envy, and of course personal envy, and it goes both ways, all ways, everyone seems to have a gripe a complaint, a wish to be someone else. Many people are reinventing themselves, looking toward celebrities, wanting their lives, and often without the struggle the work involved, people see eachother's things, but cannot put themselves in each other's shoes, seeing the other's point of view, understanding where they are coming from, and it all goes from there. Envy is a powerful thing, but is it on the rise? I heard someone say, one of those talking heads on that 24 - 7 news that was always on the TV upstairs. . . I overheard him saying that it used to be about keeping up with the Joneses, but now its about pulling down the Joneses to your level. . . I wondered when I heard that, is the first concept any better? They are both rooted in envy. So is envy on the rise at all, or just a state of the human condition, ever present. In the disorder and division, the connection is already there.
If you think about it, it makes sense. . . the connection between envy and disorder. Think about it, what is envy? It's when you desire what someone else has. And then  you could easily say that, if God is the definition of order, bringing light from darkness, holding back the chaos, bringing order, and is also the giver of all gifts, all things, then looking at what someone else has, what God has given someone else would be a challenge to the order that God has made. I found the poem in the prayer of preparation by Mary Lamb, entitled, "Envy"
This rose-tree is not made to bear
The violet blue, nor lily fair,
Nor the sweet mignionet:
And if this tree were discontent,
Or wished to change its natural bent,
It all in vain would fret.

And should it fret, you would suppose
It ne’er had seen its own red rose,
Nor after gentle shower
Had ever smelled its rose’s scent,
Or it could ne’er be discontent
With its own pretty flower.

Like such a blind and senseless tree
As I’ve imagined this to be,
All envious persons are:
With care and culture all may find
Some pretty flower in their own mind,
Some talent that is rare.

It's there right, blindness to our own gifts, a lack of gratitude for the gifts that we have been given. Is envy then something that we can overcome, or are we destined to have disorder and things falling apart, a world at each other's throats. The epistle of James is about life transformation. He is suggesting that people can change, that they should change, and that faith should be the catalyst for such a change. If you really believe that God has done for us all that we say we do, it should change the way we see the world, see other people, and see ourselves, but that if it doesn't then that faith is dead. But is envy just a part of being human. I saw this first hand while on vacation, too. We took Coralee to see Maleficent. . . she loved it, but Clara didn't get to go, so she went shopping with Nana, and when they came to pick us up, Clara had a new Ariel Barbie doll. Coralee went nuts. . . her gratitude for going to the movie, her special privilege was over and she had tunnel vision for what Clara had and she didn't have. Then it was reversed later in the trip, Coralee got sick with Strep and Swimmer's ear, and since she went to the doctor's we got her a special treat too, and of course Clara flipped. You have to wonder, could something be done, how can we teach people not to be envious, especially since it starts at such an early age. . . some people believe that one way to do it is to just make everything equal, give them both a doll, then they won't need to be at each other's throats. . . some may think, well just don't give them anything, then they won't be at each other's throats. . . or some may think just give them more and more, constantly, then they will get over it. None of it really works though, it just multiplies, shifts, and in some cases makes it totally worse, it is just treating the symptoms of the disease, but ignoring the disease. Now take that same principle and make it not about a doll, but about privilege, income, class. . . etc. and you have a world in turmoil with no one knowing how to stem the tide, things falling apart, and people at each other’s throats.
James would suggest that the answer begins with faith, but cannot end there. Faith, believing that God created the world, that God redeemed the world, and that God provides for the world, believing that should make us feel grateful, gratitude for what we do have, what we have been given, what we have not earned. It should, but does it? Are we still comparing a gift of a movie with the barbie doll, are we wishing that we were sick so we could get the treat that someone else has? Faith has to become alive within us, when we see that what we have been given is substantial, and that it is enough, we may get better, but I still don't know the answer to teach my kids, just to keep working at it, and I don't really know the trick to teach myself, just to keep working at it. But one thing is sure, envy is something we need to work on, and often we find we would rather treat the symptoms of it than cure the disease. I pray that God can give us the answers and the cure, perhaps he already has, we just need to take the medicine, even if we don't get the spoonful of sugar to go with it.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jas 3:13-18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.