James 2:1-13 NRSV
I am so thankful for the cooler weather we’ve been having this past week and really enjoyed the more frequency in rain. Finally. To take a break from the heat I chose to go to Cloudcroft on my days off last week. Heading up the mountain on Monday morning, I was truly enjoying the 70 degree weather I was experiencing.
I stopped for lunch and sat outside and took a photo of this great view and texted a group of friends in Sedona – just to make them a little jealous of where I was sitting at the moment. I had also intended to go on a hike if the weather was agreeable, and it was. Lucky me. I chose to go to the Bridal Veil Falls Trail Head not too far from my lunch spot. I traded my sandals for my trusty old hiking boots, packed my water, camera, car keys, and put on my hat and grabbed a hiking stick and off I went on this hike at 1:30 on Monday afternoon. Unfortunately, this was an area where cell phone service did not function, so I didn’t have details to know exactly the extent of the hike or the terrain. But I chose to venture out on the trail anyway. Trailhead sign let me know it was 2 miles to the falls.
Lovely, I thought. This is lovely. Weather is pleasant enough to be able to hike and enjoy the blue skies, quiet of the woods, and occasionally hear running water. It did not take me long, however, to realize my trek in the woods was all going downhill. Down and down and down I went. And I was surprised that the trail was not shady at all. I also missed some of the trail crossings in an arroyo – so I followed footprints and bike tires and after a while I realized the paths I had chosen were not heading in the direction I needed to go to get to the falls.
A bit later I talked with a couple of hikers who were returning from the falls and they thought the hike was worth the trip. Encouraged I continued this hike and was aware that as the afternoon was going on the temperature was also rising. I did find the delightful falls and the shady area it provided. Lots of people and plenty of dogs that really enjoyed cooling off in small pools of water. I talked with some folks who approached the falls from a different direction and they described where they had parked their car and mentioned it was an easier hike than the way I came in. So I chose to believe that my car was at the same spot as theirs and headed back the way they came.
As I was hiking back I saw the Y in the path and chose to take the most traveled trail. After some time I began to suspect that I had made a poor choice or two and after running into a few people who live in the area, my poor choice at the Y was confirmed and my car was not at this trailhead. This knowledgeable couple said it would be shorter to go to the road and hike back up to the car than to return on the trail. So off I went, feeling hopeful. I made it to the paved road and enjoyed the certainty of my footing on the pavement. This encouragement, however, was short-lived as I was continually climbing higher and higher and as I approached each bend in the road expecting to see my car, I was truly disappointed each time I noticed the incredible climb I still needed to make to the next bend in the road. Altitude did not help the situation.
Of course, I was praying that I wouldn’t be vulture food and that some good soul would stop and offer me a ride. Although a few cars passed me, no one stopped. At one point on this upward trek, I spotted a bit of shade across the road and thought I’d take a rest. Just as I got to the other side I heard a car approaching and a couple I had spoken with earlier stopped to see if I was ok and if they could give me a ride to my car. You bet, I said. Not only had my prayer been answered, I thought accepting that ride was one of the better choices I made that day.
As I turned on the AC in my car and headed into Cloudcroft I couldn’t believe how easy it was to make poor choices for even a seasoned hiker. Like that commercial when the person realizes they could have had a V8. Yes, I coulda, woulda, shoulda have made better choices along the way. Hindsight! Right?
Today’s scripture is all about choices we make in life. As human beings we are always faced with choices. As Christians, James reminds us that we are always confronted with choices we make as people of faith. As Christians, there is a certain amount of responsibility that comes by looking at the world thorough that lens of faith. James is confronting the issue of favoritism – of choosing the rich over the poor and how these choices favor one and dishonor another. Unfortunately that still happens all too frequently – just ask anyone seeking asylum in the United States, or who isn’t white.
We all make choices every single day. Even when we feel we don’t have a choice, we’ve chosen to believe that. And that’s a choice. Archie Smith, Jr., a commentator on this text challenges James by asking: “Why is being partial a sin? In the everyday world of sports, business, social affairs, and politics, we have to choose one value over another. During times of local or national elections, Americans are expected to show partiality. No one can stand everywhere and cast a vote for everyone. We are expected to stand somewhere and to cast a vote for someone in particular. Showing favoritism and partiality is inevitable in human affairs. So why is it a sin?
“Perhaps James would agree that showing partiality in the ways described above is an expression of social order. But James has a more serious concern. He is concerned about the class distinctions that baptized Christians make among themselves in the faith community.” (Feasting on the Word, year B, Vol 4). Making decisions through the lens of faith is central in James’ context.
The lens of the gospel is what leads me to vote the way I vote. The lens of the gospel is what leads me to work for social justice. The lens of the gospel is what leads me to strive to be a better person. The lens of the gospel is what leads me to seeing the beggar on the street in the same way I see the multi-millionaire – one of God’s children. It is a choice – when we favor one we debase another. I’d love to know the lens that brought Colin Kaepernick to take a knee, wouldn’t you?
When I was at Bangor Theological Seminary this story of the treatment of the poor came to life for me in a very real way. I would worship on Sunday mornings at Hammond Street Congregational Church where Ansley Coe Throckmorton was Senior Minister. Her husband, Burton, was my New Testament professor. Hammond Street Congregational Church was one of those typically looking NE churches – beautiful and historic and having a prominent place in the community. The services on Sunday mornings were well attended in the early 1980s.
I remember this one rather cold and rainy Sunday morning where a very shabby looking man came forward to find a seat in one of the front pews. It seemed to me at the time that he was perhaps homeless. He kept falling asleep probably due to the heat in the building and maybe the fact that he had no place to sleep on a regular basis. I remember he wore a dark blue peacoat through the service. I don’t think he was more than 60 years old. When the hymns would begin he’d wake up and dutifully stand with the congregation. Sometimes his swaying when he’d stand up would make me concerned that he’d fall on his face.
When the service was over a couple of the ushers stepped up to this man and each took hold of an arm and escorted him out of the church, ensuring that he would not be present to disrupt coffee hour offerings – probably of which he was in great need. I overheard one of the members of the congregation saying to Burt Throckmorton that we (the church) needed to have gatekeepers to keep people like him out. I had never seen Burt so angry as at that moment. He did not hesitate to speak up and confront her lack of compassion. She was flummoxed and seemed to cringe at his response, probably thinking he’d support what she did and said. A timely posting yesterday from Clergy Coaching Network calls attention to the fact that Jesus spent his whole life engaging the people most of us have spent our whole lives trying to avoid.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” we’re reminded in Jame’s reading. We are called to live the Golden Rule. To do so or not is a choice. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a choice we make.
Choices – every day we have the choice of how we are going to spend that day: engaged or withdrawn; excited or disappointed; active or couch potato – choices. I am aware that September is Suicide Prevention Month. For some people who commit suicide – they feel they have no choice but to take their own lives. As someone once said, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Unfortunately, many people feel that suicide is the best and only choice for their pain.
Kim York from SOWHO reminded us that suicide impacts the lives of many young people. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24. Veterans are also a high risk group. The poster Kim sent is in the most recent newsletter and it gives a phone number to call to help save a life. Perhaps your own life has been impacted by someone who has committed suicide. That is a difficult thing to live with – that someone has chosen death over life. Suicide as an issue makes the news when celebrities like Robin Williams or Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade take their lives, but there are people who are struggling daily with making this choice, and many are successful.
On Friday morning the UCC Daily Devotion was focused on this topic. The title of this piece is “When the Cause of Death is Suicide” and it was written by Lillian Daniel, a UCC pastor.
When the cause of death is suicide, the living are left with the questions: Why? What did I miss? Could I have prevented it? Was it my fault? Was there a note left behind?
Most people who die by suicide do not leave notes. When they do leave them, they tend not to answer the big questions but hauntingly address such small ones; I keep the safe deposit box in the bottom drawer. The dog has been walked. The password on this computer is my birthday.
The note raises more questions than it has answers.
So we turn to the living, and ask them to explain it, to tell us how we can help when depression hurts so bad, you cannot live with it. One friend described it as a torment so awful you are convinced it can never end. And yet the person who told me that is alive. And someone else I love is not.
What made the difference? It was probably not me. Mental illness is a disease. There are many treatments. One day there may be a cure. Sometimes it is the cause of death.
But it is not your fault, any more than someone else’s cancer is, or someone else’s heart disease. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t blame anyone else. Don’t keep asking the unanswerable questions. You knew a precious person whose heart clenched in excruciating pain but also swelled in joy, whose beautiful brain contained so much more brilliance than one day’s dark and deadly thought.
God embraces us all at the other side, whatever way we get there, whichever part of our human bodies gave out, whatever our struggle in this life was. That is where we will get our answers. Until then, we see through a glass dimly, but one day, we will see face to face.Lillian Daniels, UCC Daily Devotions, 9-7-18
Choices: life/death; living faith/dead faith; belief/no belief; rich/poor; giving/taking; good/bad, the road well traveled/the path less taken. From the moment we wake the reality is that our life is filled with choices – some not so important like what will I have for breakfast. Significant choices, however, beg the question: what are the lenses I choose to use when making decisions?
We close with that wonderful Lakota prayer we heard this morning:
Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind, and whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me. I come before you as one of your many children. See – I am small and weak; I need your strength and wisdom. Permit me to walk in beauty, in balance. May my heart treat with respect all the things which you have made. May my ears hear your voice and my eyes behold the red and purple sunsets which you have created. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught, that which you have hidden in every leaf and rock. I long for strength, not to overcome my brother [or sister], but to fight my greatest enemy – my willful self. Make me ever ready to come to you with pure hands and straight eyes, so that my spirit, when life departs like the setting sun, may stand unashamed before you. Amen and Amen.Lakota Prayer
Copyright DMC 2018