Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace: Worship (James 1:1-17)

Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above.  These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.  He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.
Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.  This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.  Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you--the very word that is able to save you.
You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.  Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror.  They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like.  But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it.  They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives.  They will be blessed in whatever they do.
If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves.  Their devotion is worthless.  True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.

Today we are continuing in a series of messages we’ve been in for the last several weeks, called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.”  Just as a hitchhiker is dependent on the goodness of someone else to make a journey, so too are we all spiritual hitchhikers, dependent on the generosity and grace of God to make our spiritual journey.

I have asked all of us to keep an image in our mind, of God driving around in a great big bus full of grace, making periodic stops along the way where people can hop on board.  Each of these stops is a place where we know we can meet God, where we know God shows up, where we know grace is available.  Yet, in order to receive the grace that’s available, we’ve said there are two things that each of us needs to do - the first is to-----show up, and the second is to-----have an open and willing heart.

Over the past several weeks, we have experienced God’s grace in the following ways: Communion, Baptism, Healing, and Prayer.  Today, whether you’ve been here for the whole series or this is your first Sunday back from the summer, let’s all prepare to experience grace as the bus pulls into its next stop: Worship.  May we pray.

The Real Thing
One of the shows I enjoy watching from time to time is Pawn Stars on the History Channel.  It’s a show about a pawn shop in Las Vegas, where people are bringing in all sorts of items to sell to the shop to make a little cash for themselves.  In every episode, Rick, the owner, calls in the help of an expert who will help appraise and value about half the items in question.  He always says, “Let me call a buddy of mine who’s an expert in [insert obscure category here] to come down and tell us a little more about what you’ve got here.”  Watching that show has convinced me of two things: 1.) there are a lot of people out there trying to pass off fake items as the real thing, and 2.) Rick is buddies with about half of Clark County.

If you have a choice between something that’s the real thing and something that’s fake, which one are you going to take?  Between the genuine article and a reproduction, which one do you want?  Between something that’s authentic, and an impostor, what’s it gonna be?

There’s no substitute for the real thing.  In today’s Scripture from the letter of James, we are given guidelines about sorting false worship from the real thing, from worship that serves only to deceive ourselves, and worship that truly brings glory and honor to God.

The letter of James makes a clear case when it tells us, “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves” (James 1:22).  This verse is a favorite of Missions Committees the world over, reminding us that authentic worship is less a matter of what happens in this room during one hour on Sunday and more a matter of what takes place during the other 167 hours in a week.

And yet, the letter of James seems to be written to a church where week after week, the community gathered  and sang some songs, they prayed some prayers, some Scripture was read, a message was heard, some Communion was shared - and everyone went back home unchanged, they walked out more-or-less the same people they were when they walked in.

The letter of James wants us to know that worship moves us from spectators in the stands to the starting lineup on the field, that worship gets us off of these benches and sends us into the world to put our faith into action.  Worship makes us active participants in the reconciling ministry of Christ, worship sends us out as Christ’s ambassadors into the world, thus fulfilling the teaching from the Scripture to be doers of the word, and not only hearers.

The Service
No doubt you’ve heard the story of Reverend Jenkins who was walking down the memorial hallway at church, and came across a young boy who was intently studying a large plaque.  “Reverend Jenkins,” he said, “What’s this?”  “This plaque lists the names of all the people from this church who died in the service.”  “Oh, I see,” said the boy.  The two stood there quietly for a moment, when the boy, with all sincerity, said, “Which one - 8:30 or 11?”

When we use the term “service” in relation to church, 99% of the time we’re talking about this thing we do on Sunday morning.  Friends, can I let you in on a secret?  This thing we do on Sunday mornings - this isn’t our service.  If we take the Scripture seriously, if we hear the call to be not just hearers of the word but doers, then our service doesn’t take place here and at this time.

With that framework in mind, we might say, “Our church has service once-a-month on Sunday nights when we volunteer at the Men’s Shelter” or “on Saturdays when we participate in a Habitat build” or “every Monday, Tuesday, and Friday night when 12-step support groups meet at our facility,” or “on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons when we mentor children from Sedgefield School,” or “when we collect food for the food pantry,” or “when we  take up a love offering for victims of natural disaster,” or “when we are ‘quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry’ (James 1:19).”

So, does that mean that what we do on Sunday morning becomes unimportant?  Obsolete?  Irrelevant?  Far from it.  In fact, gathering together for worship as a community – in our case every Sunday morning at 10:30 – becomes all the more important.  Taking the scripture to heart, to be doers of the word and not hearers only, we might come to realize the relationship between how we worship and how we serve.  They are not two separate things, they are not even two sides of the same coin, but worship and service flow in and out of each other, they inform each other.  Every act of service becomes an act of worship, and we worship as people who are constantly called to service.

So then, our community gathering for worship on Sunday morning becomes the place to share and celebrate where we have seen God at work, to simply glorify and praise and thank God, to open ourselves up to God working in our hearts and changing us through the very words we sing, the prayers we pray, the offering we give, the Communion we share.  What we do on Sunday morning becomes a place for us to give our full attention to God, orienting ever fiber of our being toward God, being hearers of the word and subsequent doers of the word, as verse 25 says, that we do not “listen and forget, but put it into practice in our lives, and we will be blessed in whatever we do.” 

Grace is made real when we gather together in worship, and when we show up, when our hearts are open and willing, we receive the benefit of that grace.  The worship gathering recharges our spiritual batteries, re-grounds us, re-centers us, challenges us and empowers us for faithful living as we leave this place.  In this we realize that we are not called to go to church; we are called to be the church.

True Devotion
To borrow from cooking, the proof is in the pudding.  Every Sunday, as we conclude this gathering, I say, “Our service of worship has ended; now our worship through service begins.”  I say that to remind all of us that worship is not over – rather, the genuineness of our worship will be reflected in the quality of our serve. 

This is what the letter of James calls us to in a life of authentic worship.  Hearing and doing the word – that’s the real thing.  Lest we should miss the point, today’s text spells it out even further.  Verse 27: “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties” (James 1:27).

There is a story about St. Francis of Assisi that he was praying in an ancient church that was badly in need of repair.  He heard a voice from above the altar that said, “Francis, go and repair my church which you see falling into ruin.”  Francis went to get his tools, but the divine voice spoke to him again and said, “Not the bricks, Francis.  The people are in need of repair.”  Then Francis went out and ministered to orphans and widows.

Orphans and widows represented the most vulnerable members of society.  They were utterly helpless, they had no one to protect them, no one to advocate on their behalf.  They represent the worst in terms of both poverty and vulnerability in society.

The letter of James couldn’t be clearer in this regard.  Caring for the poor and vulnerable is the real mark of true devotion; it is the true test of the authenticity of our worship.  Even so, I am struck, personally convicted even, of the distance that so often exists between what we do on Sunday morning and how we treat others.  I can’t help but wonder how many churches, how many Christians, how many of us – have focused our attention in the wrong places.  I can’t help but wonder how often we have been more concerned with the register of the organ than the cries of the orphan, and more worked up about the beauty of the window than the upholding the dignity of the widow. It is too easy for us to spend our time, effort, and money on things that are primarily about our comfort - physical, preferential, or otherwise - while the needs of those on the periphery go unnoticed.

When James tells us to “care for orphans and widows,” we should hear that as a call to look out for all those who are marginalized, who are vulnerable, who are helpless and neglected and forgotten and abused and scorned by the rest of society.  We hear this as a call to help those who have no opportunities of their own, those who have neither the boots let alone the bootstraps by which to pull themselves up.  True devotion is linked to loving service, for the Gospel we believe tells us that we are all in this together.

“You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.  Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror.  They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like” (James 1:22-24).

Make no mistake, we are worshiping creatures.  We are hard-wired to worship.  The letter of James wants us to be clear that our worship is genuine, that we are worshiping at the right altar.  We worship all the time – the question for all of us to consider is who or what are we worshipping.  If worship is like a mirror, what we see and how we respond is determined, in large part, by the altar over which our mirror is hung.  Hung over the false altar of self, of man-made things, then our worship will be false.

But, when we worship God, when our mirror is hung over the altar of God rather than some false altar, when we show up with an open and willing heart, we receive grace; that’s true worship.  That’s the kind of worship that shapes and forms us in the love of God and the character of Christ and sustains us with the Holy Spirit.  That grace is a gift, but it is not an exclusive gift just to us.  It’s meant to come to us and keep right on flowing through us.  Worship gives us the grace that can transform even the hardest of hearts, so we might transform this heartless world.  The genuineness of our worship will be reflected in the quality of our serve.

As we look at the mirror of our hearts in light of God’s call upon us, let our worship and our service, our religion and our relationships, our devotion and our behavior, be so seamlessly woven that we can’t even tell where one ends and the other begins.

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