August 29, 2021

“Back to the Basics”

(From James 1:17-27)  

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.  You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.  But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves[c] in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.  If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

     Today is the blessed 13th Sunday in our season of Ordinary time or Kingdomtide.  It is a season of   growth and change through learning the life lessons found within the Holy Scriptures.  So, Peninsula Church, “How goes it with your soul?” as John Wesley would ask those who attended his society meetings.  How are you personally doing in this season of learning and growth?  Looking back on some of our learnings so far during this season, we have learned that the Holy Scriptures are the guide for our living, that, as people of maturing faith, we need to speak the truth in love, that our souls as well as our bodies need care and nourishment, and that the Holy Spirit is both our Defender and the power-source for living.  Wow! That is a lot of learning for one season.  

     It can seem a bit overwhelming when we consider that we read so many scriptures and share so many learnings in the course of a year, not to mention during our lifelong journey of faith.  We may consider ourselves to be the most sophisticated and technologically advanced generation in history, but we still   contend with human issues of complacency to the comfortable status-quo, as well as succumbing to the mental burnout and physical fatigue created by modern-day living.  So, today I am going to break our learning down for us by bringing it back to basics.

     The inspiration for this message came to me as I was driving to work on Monday morning.  You may recall that it was a gray-sky morning, and there were even a few raindrops falling on my window shield.  You might say I was feeling a bit of the “blahs” as I thought about all the work that was awaiting me on my desk.  “Relax and breathe,” I told myself.  “You’ve got this.  Remember the basics of the 80/20 principle and prioritize.”  Just then, the sky opened to reveal the beautiful rays of the sunrise, and I knew that I was on the right track.

     As I was reflecting on just what tasks I was prioritizing, the Holy Spirit reminded me that prioritizing is also important for our spiritual lives.  The 80/20 rule—another good life lesson, teaches that 80% of the benefit gained comes from 20% of the sources; so, focus on the 80.  For example, at work we have found that 80% of our profit comes from our top 20% of our customers.  Focusing on them yields the greatest benefit to our company.  In our spiritual lives, even though we may study many verses of scripture, from many sources, and find many ways to discuss them, we can derive 80% of our spiritual benefit by focusing on the most important 20% of the teachings and tenets of our faith—if we get back to the basics.  This assessment is scriptural, friends.  Jesus told his Disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus said, all of the requirements of the law and all of the admonitions, encouragement and prophetic messages found in scripture can be summed up in one phrase, “love God and love others”—that is it.  Like the famous Beatles song tells us, “All you need is love.”  Well, maybe we all need just a bit more background information to guide us in fully understanding the foundation and implications of these words Jesus shared with his Disciples.

     As we seek to more completely understand this teaching of Jesus, let’s really go back to basics and begin with the source of all things—God.  The Holy Scriptures tell us God created everything that is, and God called creation good.  But humans wanted to be like God and to make their own choices.  These choices led humans astray of God and into a state of sin and separation.  So God needed a new plan that would atone for sin and restore sinful and separated humans back into God’s fold.  God created the plan of salvation.

     God’s plan of salvation rested on two important characteristics of God—God’s unconditional love for us, and God’s boundless grace.  This plan had to enter into human history with an opportunity for change that would redeem human souls.  So, God’s unconditional love and boundless grace and forgiveness sent us Jesus.  Jesus, the Son and second person of the Triune God Head, became God in the flesh for us.  Born of a woman, Jesus was both fully human and fully God.  He bore our sorrows and was, as scripture tells us, personally acquainted with our griefs.  Jesus was the perfect sacrificial Lamb of God who, once and for all, atoned for the sin of all who believe in him.  Jews had made sacrifices for their sins for generations, but none of them had the power to vanquish sin and redeem sinners.  That is the power of God’s love and grace brought to fruition for us in Jesus.  There is a scripture, one of my favorite texts, that concisely shares this good news. It is found in John Chapter 3, verses 16-17: “For God so loved the world the he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be save through him.”  

     Thus, Church, we are saved by God’s loving grace through faith alone.  Nothing else can atone for our sin—no work, no prayer, no Hymn of praise.  Good works do not save us, they are our glorious joyful response to God’s mercy and grace toward us.  When we believe, we are justified, made right with God by our faith.  The rest of our life forward is a process of growing in holiness to become more like Jesus.  God did not leave us on our own to figure out how to grow in holiness—we have the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and sustain our journey into holiness.  The Holy Spirit’s power works in and through us to teach and train us, so that we can accomplish the critical 80% basics, the commandments to love God and others.

     In our New Testament lesson this morning, James tells us that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  He is holding us accountable to following the basics. “Be doers of the word and not hearers who deceive themselves,” he shares.  Our faith calls us into action, actively caring for the widows and orphans, the needy people of our time.  The commandments are basic, clear and simple-love God and love others.  Implementing them in our world’s political, economic and social systems is far more complex.  That is why we need the Holy Spirit’s wisdom, guidance and power for living in our times.  Life can be difficult and complicated, pulling us in many directions.  Yet, as Christians, we are called to live in the world, but as James has admonished us, not be stained by it. Instead, we are equipped to follow the example of Jesus with the Spirit’s guidance and help to support us along the way. We can do this if we clear our hearts and minds of all the clutter, and simply focus on getting back to the basics. Amen.

Hymn: “Sent Forth by God’s Blessing”

(words-Omer Westendorf, music-Welsh Folk Tune)

                   Sent forth by God’s blessing, our true faith confessing, the people of God from this dwelling take leave.  The service is ended, O now be extended the fruits of our worship in all who believe. The seed of the teaching, receptive souls reaching, shall blossom in action for all. God’s grace did invite us, and love shall unite us to work for God’s kingdom and answer the call.