First Lesson: Matthew 5:1-12
Children’s story: I Kings 3:4-15
September 20, 2015
We have been camping out in the books of Genesis and Exodus for several weeks now and we have been reading the stories of God’s people as they escaped from being slaves in Egypt and as they lived in the desert. We have seen who God is and how God is with people through hearing those stories. Last week we had the story of God giving what we call the Ten Commandments.
Now we’re going to leave those stories and we’re going to be soaking ourselves in the book of James for a few weeks. But we’re going to have flashbacks of God and the instructions that God gave to the people in the desert. We’ll also be having glimpses of Jesus and his instructions to us in the Beatitudes that we read this morning from the book of Matthew.
So here’s the question. These days I am asking this question throughout the congregation. I’ve been asking it of the session and others as well: Who are the Spiritual leaders of North Kent Church?
So far I haven’t gotten many answers. You all know who are the long time members. You all know who holds the history of the church. You all know who’s in charge of this or that. You know or you can easily look up who serves on what committee and who’s an elder or a deacon. But nobody seems to be able to tell me who the spiritual leaders in the church are. We could talk about this for a very long time, and there’s no one perfect answer. But for the moment, we’ll be looking at the traits that James is pointing out to us. And we’ll see what spiritual leaders look like from his point of view. What qualities do spiritual leaders have? What do spiritual leaders look like?
Now I have been your temporary, part time pastor for almost a year now, and in that time I have come to know you and love you and appreciate you. I have come to hear some of your stories and I know some of what’s happening in your families and I know who of you are grieving. I know which of you are living with chronic illnesses and I know who are the caregivers. I know which of you love and which of you hate your jobs and I know that some of you are struggling financially. And with all of that in my head and my heart, I spend time with you.
Sometimes I’ll spend a few minutes with one of you. We’ll talk a little, but it doesn’t really matter what we say, because I am blessed to be in your presence. There is a blessedness about the space around you, and I linger there for a moment. It’s the steadfastness and perseverance that James talks about. It comes from living through years of pain and anguish and living through those years in the grace that God provides. James calls it the crown of life that God promises to those who love God. I call it a great blessedness.
And maybe, my beloved. Maybe. I say this very carefully. Maybe it will even be that the day will come when you will look back on those very hard times and the Spirit of God will do that thing in you that the Spirit of God does in us. And you will say that those hard times were a blessing in your life. Those hard times were a gift of God in your life. That’s not for me to say to any one of you and it’s not for you to say to me, but maybe you will say that to yourself. Some day. Looking back on it all.
You are a very favored bunch of folks at North Kent Church. You are well educated and you live well. You look well and you speak well and you behave well. The Rockford Schools are among the best in the state, and most of you have very good educations beyond high school. You have and you have had positions of leadership in your professions and you are well respected in this community. Most of you live very comfortably indeed. So let me speak to you. James tells us that all of can fade very quickly – like flowers in our gardens when they get too much sun. One day they look like healthy green flowering plants. The next day they are withered and wilted and almost dead. The financial security we may feel can disappear with a couple of dips in the stock market. Or one serious illness. The lovely homes we live in can be demolished in an instant in a flood or a forest fire. Our good reputations can be destroyed in a second by a couple of spiteful, lying people. Once we understand that, we see that there is really no room for pride in our lives. There’s really no reason to presume that we have some special influence or some special benefits or that our ideas are the best ones or that anybody should pay special attention to us. We understand that a little humility is a very beautiful thing and we live our lives with a certain gentle modesty. Jesus says, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” The lowly will be exalted and those who have high opinions of themselves will be brought low. And that’s the way it is in the topsy turvey upside down kingdom of God where everything is the opposite of what we would expect. James even says that those of us who are rich should take pride in our humble position.
And then James reminds us of something we really know very well: He says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
So may I say this very clearly. Words hurt. Even when we do not mean them to hurt, they hurt. Even when we do our best to make our words soft and tender sometimes they are not. I’ve been hearing about the hurt in this congregation – many, many years of deep hurt here. So many stories of deep hurts. We are moving into the future now. Good things are happening. There’s a good spirit in the church, and we’re grateful for good Christian Education for our children and adults and good times around the tables in Fellowship Hall. You’ve paid off a hefty mortgage well ahead of schedule this year and we’re getting ready to elect a Pastoral Nominating Committee. A great many good things are happening. But under all that there’s still hurt. The pain of the past is still lurking there. Old words are still powerful words. Old memories are still painful memories. And I long for a time when those who have been hurt will come and sit together to listen to each other. Just listen to each other and actually hear each other. And share the pain. And offer and receive forgiveness. And move into a new future together.
Dr. Laird Stuart will be here in a few weeks to talk with us about forgiveness and healing and I hope his words will be the start of a new future for this congregation. You cannot move into the future until you have found healing for the deep hurts of the past. You cannot welcome a new pastor until you have forgiven each other for hurts piled upon hurts over many years. My beloved congregation of Jesus Christ, did you hear me?
And I am praying and pondering who will be the humble, compassionate people – people who are ready to listen long before they speak - who will lead you in the very hard work of forgiving and healing and health.
And then James talks about what you do so very well. James says, “Be doers of Word and not only hearers.” He says, once we have soaked ourselves in the ten commandments that we talked about last week. Once we have read and re-read and then read again those Beatitudes from the book of Matthew that we just heard. Once we understand that the first are last and the last are first and the poor are really rich and the rich are really poor. Once we understand that the meek, of all people, will inherit the earth. Once we’ve gotten control of our tongues. Once it soaks into our very bones that it’s the hungry and the peacemakers who are blessed. Once we know deep in our DNA whom Jesus loves best.
Then we bring school supplies for the kids in this community. Then we contribute hundreds of dollars for sheets and pillows cases for homeless people at Mel Trotter Ministries. Then we fill up the big barrels in Fellowship Hall with food for our neighbors through North Kent Community Services and one of you will bring it there. And pretty soon it’s going to be the Christmas boxes and it’s always the mission programs of our Presbytery. And it’s the women at Safe Haven. All the people whom Jesus loves best.
James says to us, “true religion is to visit the orphans and the widows.” And Jesus says to us, “Because you did it to them, you’ve done it to me. Come into the kingdom that’s prepared for you.”