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James 3:13
– 4: 8a


When I was in college one of the
first things that eager Campus Crusaders for Christ showed me was a little
booklet called “The Four Spiritual Laws.” You may have seen it before; it
includes the steps towards accepting Jesus as Lord: not a bad thing to know and
to experience! But when you follow the booklet to the letter, using it one on
one, the new seeker is supposed to make a decision for Christ within 30
minutes! Certainly there have been a couple of faster conversions that we know
of, like Paul’s conversion to Christ on the Damascus road, but this cookie cutter
approach is too programmed for many people. Still, in that booklet one of the
diagrams includes a stick figure of a person sitting in a chair in the very
center of a circle, with a cross over to one side of the circle. Attached to the
stick figure is a letter E that reminds us of Freud’s term called Ego. The ego
wants what it wants, and takes whatever is necessary to feed its insatiable
appetite for being in the spotlight. Egocentric people think mostly about
themselves. Putting the cross to one side, says this booklet, shows what many
people do with their lives, some who even attend churches: they put themselves in the center of their life and
put Christ off to the side. But the next figure showed a right relationship with Christ: the Cross represents him and is in
the center of the person’s life, with the ego over to the side. Today our two
texts are from Genesis and James. Both of them deal with jealousy and
self-serving decisions that cause us to wrestle with the question: who is in
control of our life? Long before Jesus was born, Jacob had twelve sons and a daughter.
The story of their lives, especially in Genesis 37, is a story of jealousy,
deceit, and envy. The Bible pulls no punches when it comes to even the
patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith. From that sordid and troubled family
came the twelve tribes of Israel,
imperfect, but chosen by God. Later Jesus, trying to recreate and re-imagine
those twelve tribes, selected twelve men to embody those brothers in a new way.
But even those men, the apostles, had their jealous streaks, even discussing
among themselves about which one was the greatest and who would get to sit at
Jesus’ right hand in glory. Jealousy and selfishness has been around since time


Today I want to offer three examples
of jealousy or envy, qualities that do not invite the peace of God to rule in
one’s life: one is from a family situation, one from the Old Testament, and one
from the New Testament. In each case, we’ll be examining the truth in the text
from James which says: “Wherever jealousy, envy, or selfish ambition is, there
will be disorder and wickedness.” First let me take you to a typical backyard
with typical children playing typical games. Today the children are playing on
the swing set. “The little sister pipes up to her brother, “Hey! I wanted to be
on the high swing first!” Her brother replies, as he is swinging away, “No, you
were on this swing first last time (as he mentally kept score) so I get to be
on it first this time.” “Ok then, I’m going to ask Billy to get on the seesaw
with me instead of you!” “Hey, you can’t do that!” her brother protests. “Can
so!” “Can not!” Can so! Billy come get on the seesaw with me!” she says. “No!”
her other brother protests. Then there’s another voice: “Children! Come wash
your hands for dinner!” A mad rush to the bathroom sink ensues with the last
one trying to stick his hands under the water with the first one. Water sprays
everywhere. Mom is not happy. All of that happened because normal children show
jealousy and envy regularly. We know that. But by teenage year most youth have
not grown out of those emotions; in fact, many adults carry them even to their
grave. But we can master them with the gifts from God. Some never do. Many
people work and push to be number one. In the 1970s a book called “Looking Out
for Number One” named our proclivity toward sinfulness as a noble quality. It
twisted the message of Christianity but the followers of that book are around
even today. There’s the person who drives into the parking place you were
waiting for with turn signal on; there’s the couple who rushes ahead from a
parking lot into the restaurant so they can put their name in for a table
before you. It happens all the time. But when allowed to go unchecked, such
emotions bring disorder.


In William Golding’s classic novel LORD OF THE FLIES we see the text from
James being lived out horribly. Who would have thought that a handful of
British boys, ages 6 – 12, would drop from living rather normally to living
like actual savages in a matter of days? One critic said: “LORD OF THE FLIES uncovers the fallen and unredeemed human heart;
it sketches the enormity of which [a person] unrestrained by human law and
resistant to divine grace, is capable.”
We may think that children left alone will find workable solutions to
their disagreements, but many times we would be wrong. But in LORD OF THE FLIES, unsupervised children
even caused the death of two. And the words of James ring in our ears again:
“Wherever jealousy, envy, or selfish ambition is, there will be disorder and


Our second example comes from Joseph
in the book of Genesis; it is the story of favoritism, greed, and jealousy. Sin
after sin rears their ugly heads. Jacob, the father, adds to the conflict by
clearly showing his preference for young Joseph over his other sons- a terrible
idea, parents! Joseph’s brothers become jealous. Joseph throws fuel on his
brothers’ rage when he tells them about a dream he had about sheaves in a
field. “You see my brothers,” Joseph said foolishly, “It was such an
interesting dream! In it my sheave was straight and tall, while your sheaves
gathered around mine and bowed down to it! Wasn’t that a wonderful dream?”  The brothers grumbled and seethed. Then
Joseph pushed his luck too far as he said that in another dream even that the
sun, the moon, and 11 stars bowed down to him! His brothers could take no more
and began to look for a chance to get him.


There is no evidence of kindness,
thoughtfulness, or putting others first in those first two scenarios. And,
sadly, some in our world have deliberately and unapologetically stayed in the
childish me-first mentality. One person once told me that his philosophy was to
get the turkeys before they got him. Se we scramble and climb and claw and
scrape to the top. To get there people step on others who don’t soon forget the
feeling of being “used.” Then, in a worst case scenario, you may one day find
yourself in a crisis but also find that you now have no friends, a family that
resents you, and you have become, as the song says, “the king of nothing:”
bitter, burnout out, lonely. Children sometimes grow out of their childishness
and in the Joseph story there finally is reconciliation in Genesis 45. But surely
Jesus would pick better examples than those twelve brothers, wouldn’t you
think? But no; even the disciples argued with one another about which of them
was the greatest. So Jesus, in a move of great irony, put his arm around a
child and said “Whoever in my name welcomes this child, welcomes me; and
whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For those who are least among
you will then become the greatest.”


On a hot summer day years ago, before
air conditioning, the story is told of two churches in a small town that were
less than one block away from each other. With windows on and funeral home fans
fanning, those in the one service could actually overhear the preaching and the
singing at the other church some Sunday mornings! Sadly the preachers were not
friends but were envious competitors. When one took in new members, the other
resented it. Toward the end of the service at one church when new members were
received, the preacher chose to sing the hymn “Will There Be Any Stars in My
Crown?” As they began to sing with joyful volume, the preacher of the other
church antagonistically changed his final hymn and asked the congregation to
loudly sing the hymn “No, not one!” in response!    It is
ugly to see jealousy, isn’t it? And it causes dissension, conflict, and
heartache. James was right about that.  Jesus
exhibited humility, service, and love to a world that lacked all of them. When
we chose to do as Jesus did, we begin to find order out of chaos; creation out
of destruction; and humbleness instead of boastfulness. Only then can peace
grow through the barren soil of strife.


Our country is in a state of disorder
as we head toward the November elections. There are nations where our troops
are on the ground that are also in disorder. It is alarming and troubling news.
And certainly on a lighter note, reality television is chock full of
competitions that create the environment for jealousy, envy, and putting self
first at the cost of all else. Do not let the media, or peer groups, or even
your family be your ultimate guide.
Remember the stick figure in the 4 Spiritual Laws? Are you in the center
of your own life? Is someone else there? Or is Jesus in the center? That
decision is yours and yours alone. Make it, or reaffirm it, today.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           September 23, 2012

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James 3: 1-12


Over the summer and into the fall I
have tried to watch less and less programming that isn’t recorded. Still when I
watch the evening news, I am forced to watch commercials with a barrage of
critical comments about one presidential candidate or the other.  I can tell that the negativity, even as I try
to avoid it, started to get under my skin. There is no ad that has convinced me
to vote one way instead of the other. Instead, I simply stop believing that
there is truth in advertising. If I stop believing that there is truth in
advertising, I start to creep into thoughts I detest: like is there still truth
in the world, or is there just spin? Should getting one’s political candidate
elected come at any cost? Is the mudslinging—the words meant to damage—really
the best course of action? As one candidate’s credentials or record is
questioned, ominous and foreboding music plays, and when the other candidate’s
solution is suggested, the music gets either joyful or patriotic. I feel
manipulated by words, which I use as my profession and which can be deeply
motivating; perhaps worse, I feel manipulated by music, something I usually
enjoy. This is such a season, isn’t it, and it comes around every four years
but the campaigning seems to start earlier and earlier. Like looking at
Christmas decorations in July or Thanksgiving cards in August, the sales season
for politics has stretched for months. So I try to escape the rhetoric that can
sadden or darken my spirit. If I look to my email, there I too am bombarded by
political vitriol and sometimes lies that people send, so I no longer read them
but just delete them. Then I might turn to the back section of the newspaper to
the comics for a little respite, thinking I get can away from the harsh words
of the human tongue, but there I might find Elviney feuding with Dinah and
zinging each other with sarcastic words in “Snuffy Smith;” then I glance at
“The Family Circus” and find Billy tattling on his sister to his mother. Going
up the page to “Blondie” I find Dagwood talking to his next door neighbor about
a spat he and Blondie had. I saw on television that the film “Steel Magnolias”
has been remade. (I thought to myself, “Why remake it? It’s a classic?” but
that’s not my point.) In the original film I remember Dolly Parton and Olympia
Dukakis sitting on a seat together and Dukakis’ character, Clairee Belcher,
said her now famous line: “If you can’t say anything nice about anybody …come
sit by me!” The other version of that quote that is less humorous but more
powerful did not originate in the Walt Disney film “Bambi,” but was made famous
by it: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”


The writer of James already had the
issues surrounding him that we have in our world; they just came in different
forms. Slander had already taken root in the human heart, as had cruelty and
the power of bear false witness. James makes a superb argument with the
following examples: that human beings have been given the power to tame the created
world and to use it for good, and that we learn how to tame animals, control
animals or avoid animals. With all the wonder of creation, the tongue—not the
part of the body, but the speech that is formed by using it—is perhaps the most
powerful part instrument God has given us, for better or for worse. God, James
says, gave mortals a tongue, a soul, and an ability to speak and know right
from wrong, so it lands in our laps to be the one species out of millions with
the ability to praise God with our words. In verse nine we read how the tongue
can be sharper than any two edged-sword: “With it we bless the Lord and Father,
and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” If we pray to,
adore, and praise God, we are using our tongues for perhaps the primary
function for which they were given to us. But, as is evident in Scripture as
well, at times we may use our tongues to curse God or others in our anger, our
frustration, or our grief. As I heard someone once say to a teenager who just
uttered a string of curses, “Is that the same mouth you kiss your mama with?” So
we know that the source of blessing, God, has given the power to choose, and
some, regretfully, choose to curse. What responsibility we have with our words!
Once a word leaves your lips it cannot be withdrawn. To tell someone you love
them changes them. To tell that person, or another person, that you hate them
changes them too. To tell the truth is a high standard for a tongue to keep;
but how often do people start to slide down the slippery slope of half-truths
or lies? I find myself not only gravitating toward persons who are regularly
complimentary about others. Do you? Do you like to hear what good qualities
people see in others? Or are you like Clairee: “If you can’t say anything nice
come sit by me?” If I hear someone who is constantly critical of others or of
me, I’m not likely to want to be with them as much. I’ve noticed that around
the first group I begin to compliment others too, raising the level of
discourse. Around the second group I fall into the gutter of complaining or
criticizing. My countenance begins to fall. So James is just one short letter
in the Bible, but it carries great weight. A horse is a muscular magnificent
creature but just a bridle in the mouth can direct the animal’s power to be
used for creation or destruction. A ship at sea is a marvelous way to travel on
water, but one small part of a ship-the rudder- can cause the vessel to be
steered into or away from a rocky shore or a brittle iceberg.


There is one other thing to say about
the power God gave the human tongue: there are times we learn its destructive
force too little too late. The honey-voiced singer of the 1970s Karen
Carpenter, died from complications of anorexia because she heard her brother’s
friends refer to her as his “chubby sister.” The words led to the end of her
life. In another case, one college student told others about his roommate,
details of a personal and sexual nature, and it led to his suicide. All because the tongue was activated before
the conscience got to process the consequences. It is wishful thinking to say
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.”

One Christian blogger named Andrew
Schultz had this to say on the subject:


Do you
realize that you have tremendous power over the lives of many other people? The
smallest act of kindness done for someone who is not expecting it can
completely change their mood. If they are in a good mood, they may be more apt
to appreciate the world around them. In this positive mindset, they are more
able to notice and take advantage of opportunities that come their way. They
also are far more likely to do kind things for others, which can further
perpetuate this cycle.

Your kind words or actions
can literally set off a spiral of positivity that you can never fully grasp. If
your words of appreciation for a friend change her mood from apathetic to
happy, she might be more likely to help a stranger ….You have this kind of
power. Perpetuating kindness is a very selfless act.

Unfortunately, this power doesn’t only
work for good.

Every bad mood, harsh
word, verbalized complaint, or short tempered outburst you have influences
others as well.

Rather than showing
appreciation to your friend, what if you complained to her about your headache
and how poorly you’ve been sleeping, or something else negative that is going
on in your own head? Instead of helping the stranger … she might not even
notice him. You also have this kind of power. Perpetuating negativity is a very
selfish act.


Jesus himself noticed
and lifted up those who others put down or ignored. Just a couple of words
like: “Take up your pallet and walk” or “Your daughter is healed” or “Zaccheus,
I’m going to your house today!” spoke volumes.


Words can harm, but words can lift as well. So here is a final word from
James today: think back to the ways you have used your words for good: perhaps
you don’t even know who you have lifted up by your affirmative words. Think now
about those who have said things that have filled you with a good sense of pride, of purpose, or esteem, or of care.
I can remember those people and their words in an instant. And when I need to,
I can go to that memory and draw strength from it. You can to. Go in your mind
to those times, and those persons who have lifted you, have loved you, or who
have encouraged you. Cling to those words like a life preserver in a sea of
chaos. The world is a sea of chaos right
now. But you can not only find your strength in the memory of a word fitly
spoken, you can raise the discourse in the world, even in this political year,
when you refuse to jump on the blame bandwagon and lift up qualities you see in
another human being. In this mean season, it honors God to let your conscience
guide your tongue


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                   September 16, 2012





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Song of Songs 2: 8-13

It wasn’t until I was directed to read a book by Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest,that I began to consider that we learn the most and grow the most after a terrible event: a death, a disease, a tragedy, or even a personal crisis like an addiction, an arrest, or an imprisonment.  I think of some in this congregation who, recovering from a great sense of personal pain, have created programs to become wounded healers to others. As I thought through my times of growth- from the discovery of my diabetes to my time of near professional burnout or dark night of the soul- I’ve been aware of how strength has been born from the womb of those times of weakness. In his book called FALLING UPWARD,  Rohr says: “Some have called this principle of going down to go up a ‘spirituality of imperfection’ or ‘the way of the wound.’ It has been affirmed in Christianity by Therese of Lisieux as her Little Way, by St. Francis as the way of poverty, and by Alcoholics Anonymous as the necessary first step. St. Paul taught the unwelcome message with his enigmatic ‘It is when I am weak that I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:10.) ….[it is] mirrored rather clearly in the whole universe, and especially in physics and biology, which is one huge platter of entropy: constant loss and renewal, death and transformation, the changing of forms and forces.”

Today I want to focus on times when a person has been imprisoned: such an event changes one’s life. The arresting, the captivity, the poor conditions, the limitations: they all create a different world. Virtually no one leaves prison the same, for better or for worse; they have changed in some fashion. And their insights become a powerful diving platform from which they jump into life in a new way. Many realize they have changed; a change because, for a time, they had been dropped into a dungeon of differentness: different food, different place to sleep, different temperatures, and different emotions filling their hearts. While in captivity, prisoners are left to their own thoughts for hours instead of filling their time with phones, computers, or other means of socialization. When we were in Jerusalem we saw a place where it is likely that Jesus was kept before he met with Pilate; Jesus was not only changed by the cross, he was surely changed by being dropped into a pit where criminals had also waited. St. Paul is the master writer of most of our New Testament, and many of his inspired words he wrote in prison. In addition, the wondrous and mysterious book of Revelation from John was also written in prison. The famous Protestant theologian of the early 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote and moved the world with his LETTERS AND PAPERS FROM PRISON.  In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham jail as he was trying to make a difference for people of color there rather than stay at his desk in Atlanta Georgia. And it was in prison that the former White House Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon, Chuck Colson, found Christ knocking at the door of his heart. A man in prison said to him as was being released: “Hey Colson! What’re you goin’ to do for us when you get out of here?” Somehow Chuck Colson had been changed by Christ while in prison. When he was out he started his Prison Fellowship Ministry, a Christian ministry to inmates and the families of inmates. He did it in part because he fell down before he could get up and be a new man. Prison can bring on significant changes.

Back in the 16th century in a city called Toledo in Spain, an old abandoned latrine in a Carmelite monastery had been transformed into a prison for a Christian man, also a Carmelite monk, which meant both he and his captors were supposedly followers of Jesus. He was only five feet tall and was born as Juan de Yepes but he took the name of St. John of the Cross. He and his mentor, Teresa of Avila, were working to reform the Carmelite monasteries. Like her spiritual brother in Reform, Martin Luther, she got in trouble when she stood against the status quo, like Luther did, and John did. Luther was imprisoned in Germany and John of the Cross in Spain. John was in this dreadful cell in darkness day and night, not being allowed to leave it for anything. It was 6 feet by 10 feet, smelled like a latrine, and he had his food handed through a crack in the door. While there, John of the Cross, like other spiritual ancestors, could focus on Christ and on the Scriptures he had memorized, and he could try not to break under the torment. For more than two months his health declined so much that he was close to death. The sores on his back from being flogged festered with infection. In his delirium, instead of cursing God for seeming to forsake him, he started to remember lines from the Song of Solomon. Like the lines of many songs, the poetry stuck with him and he could recall it. The words as you heard them read today are a love letter from a loved one to a beloved one. Although most have used that kind of poetry between two human beings who love each other, John of the Cross started to picture his beloved one as God, and began to own the teaching that he had heard all his life: that God loved him, now and forever. John of the Cross not only regained his strength by that focus, he began to write a love letter to God that would mimic the Song of Solomon but in his own words. In that prison, John of the Cross went through what he called “a dark night of the soul.” At first he thought God was far away and had forsaken him. But then, even in that stinking prison cell with so called Christians as his captors, John of the Cross looked beyond the murky circumstances of his life and was lifted by loving God and feeling God’s love, more so, he said, than ever before. In those circumstances he felt loved. As Richard Rohr pointed out, often it is in our time of deepest darkness or despair that God encourages us to change the trajectory of our life from down to up; from hopeless to hopeful; from meaningless to meaningful. The words of that little man in darkness have spoken to millions of others since being written in the late 1580s.

Today I invite you to see if there has been an event in your life from which you have rebounded. How have you done? Is the event still weighing you down like a drenched blanket or a heavy chain? Or are you still shackled? Has it crippled you and kept you from soaring up to this point? Others here taken their dark night, fueled with conviction and connecting with a cheering section of heavenly angels, and have begun to make a difference. Some even here today have indeed moved beyond their dark night. Any of us can be a phoenix rising from the ashes of our own darkness. And we can claim God’s love as our fuel and our message. The Song of Solomon has some loving words. Can you imagine them being written for you, from a God who loves you eternally, and will never let you go?  Instead of cursing dreadful or devastating times in our lives, through Jesus Christ we can transform them into what Jesus himself did: a fighting chance at seeing things differently, and getting a new life. In your baptism, God sealed his love in your heart; find it; connect with it; and give thanks for it so you can discover brighter days for your soul.

Jeffrey A. SumnerSeptember 2, 2012