Are You Living?


Cogito ergo sum. Latin, written by Rene Descartes, meaning, “I think; therefore I am.”

Look at the derivation of the first word: cogito. It is made from two words: [1] c0, meaning “together” and [2] agitare, meaning “to shake.” So the word “think” is, metaphorically speaking, “to shake together.”

Philosophically, if you are not shaking up things, you aren’t living. I shake things up; therefore I am.

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A Grudging Craft

A hymn I lettered way back in 1984 – 25 years ago – that still hangs in our dining room

Some days I just don’t feel like showing up for this job. I want to; I just don’t feel like it. Satisfying moments are few and far between and so briefly enjoyed. When I was a printer, though there were those grudging days when nothing seemed to get accomplished, I got to see the results of my work—stacks of paper and ink…and satisfied customers.

When I was a calligrapher, though the inked paper didn’t exactly pile up, the craft itself—not unlike printing—was satisfying. I saw the results of my work. There was a tactile nature to lettering and a delight in seeing a well-crafted serif or flourish appear. Then there was the privilege of hanging it on the wall (my own or another) and just having it there to appreciate over the years.

As a pastor, most days begrudge me of satisfaction. Where is the accomplishment? Where even the gauge of movement? Where is the stack of paper?

I desire do two things this morning. One is get my fingers in ink again. The other is find a way to make pastoring a craft that is tangible and satisfying. The first I may rediscover insofar as lettering and painting but probably not printing. Still, I keep having printing dreams; the last two nights especially. But it’s hard to imagine where I’d find the time and money to print again.

The second, discovering a pastoral craft, seems theologically implausible. This vocation is based on faith. The tangibles are distantly spaced over one’s life and so fleeting that the rewards of a pastorate are left to believing or hoping you’ve made an impression.

I can study and write and preach and teach and marry and bury and visit and counsel…and call it a craft or even approach it as a craft. (There is an idea worth exploring.) But where are the results? Where are the stacks of imprinted lives? I suspect I will never see the results in any lastingly gratifying way until my days are no more.

Until then, this grudging craft must be done in faith, days stacking up as leaves, no page quite the same as the previous, letting the Holy Spirit be the printer and I more the press.

(Perhaps there is yet a way I can find the time and space to bring these crafts together in my calling.)

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Nice Atheist, Katharine Hepburn


I just stumbled across a quotation by Katharine Hepburn: “I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for people.” —Katharine Hepburn, Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1991

How did she “know” that she could “believe” that principle was true? Who said so? It sounds nice but how is it that her “truth” is any more true than another person’s “truth”? Perhaps punching someone in the face is what one is really supposed to do in life. Doesn’t seem as nice, I suppose. But isn’t life rather sad if all it is about is being nice to folks?

Perhaps she simply had a great deal of faith in herself and came up with one commandment. Then again, maybe these subjective stabs at what is true are just justifications for doing whatever one wants to do with her life. Or attempts to not wrestle with God. No thanks. I’d rather not know the truth so I’ll make believe you don’t exist.

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” —John 8:31-32

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Faculty Directed Research

I just applied for a Faculty Directed Research project during Spring A term at CEDS. It would be for one class in my additional MDiv. I have asked to be directed by Dr. Ron Selleck in a study of Galatians that uses Luther’s Commentary on Galatians.

I would read the entirety of his Commentary on Galatians (486pp), as well as the epistle itself in various versions, and then write a commentary on the commentary. Conversations with Dr. Selleck on each chapter, as I write, would give opportunity for faculty direction.

My goal would be to focus on Luther’s primary tenet of faith in Christ alone and see if [1] his writings are justified by the epistle, [2] if he holds true to them in his commentary, and [3] emphasize what Luther still has to say, if anything, to the Church today. I would be asking the texts if there are still Judaizers afoot in the Church—as well as those who would be swayed by their neo-legalisms? If so, what do Paul and Luther have to say to these parties and what encouragement, if any, do they offer to those who would remain true to Luther’s central article of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?

CEDS does not offer a class with this narrowed look at Galatians—nor one with Dr. Selleck’s understanding of Luther’s biblical study. I hope it’s approved because it will give me a good way to jump back into this MDiv and get it finished so I may move on to the next leg of my academic journey, the Lord willing.

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No Mumblin’ Word


“No Mumblin’ Word”
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
October 4, 2009

Since I was a young man, I have had difficulty hearing out of  my right ear. When I get hearing tests, they tell me nothing is wrong but still, if my right ear is toward you and you don’t speak loudly enough, chances are, I am not going to hear you. And it is irritating. Not just to me but I’m sure it is annoying to those who are trying to speak to me.

Very often this is the way it goes in the Ryman home: Honey, would you like me to pack you a lunch? Then a moment later: Well, would you like me to pack you a lunch? To which I get the reply: I told you I wanted a Lean Cuisine and a yogurt. And my continuing reply is, “If you want me to hear you, you have to speak up.” To make matters worse, sometimes her response is further concealed by a hair blower. All the more reason to speak up!

Recently, suspecting a lack of attention on my part, I have asked the question and then looked in to see and hear a response. The times I have looked, it is barely audible. In fact, it is sometimes mumbled. So let me go on record to say, “Honey, I am still going to fix you a lunch even if you mumble. But if you really want to be heard, you cannot mumble.”

Now sometimes, if you really want to be heard, you must not say a thing, as in the old spiritual:

They led Him to Pilate’s bar
Not a word, not a word, not a word, not a word
They led Him to Pilate’s bar
Not a word, not a word, not a word, not a word
They led Him to Pilate’s bar
But He never said a mumblin’ word
Not a word, not a word, not a word, not a word

Jesus allowed himself for our sake to be led as a sheep to the slaughter. But he also spoke the truth before Pilate. When asked who he was, he directly answered.

In the history of salvation, God’s people have very often him speak under the cover of a less anachronistic noise than a hair dryer. God spoke in ages past through prophets. Those prophets often seem to mumble. Ezekiel is especially “mumbly.”

As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. (Ezekiel 1:4-8b)

I’ll stop there because I’m sure you get the point. You have to really concentrate—even study—to understand what Ezekiel is saying. Ezekiel is not alone amongst the prophets or for that matter, the Apostles. John was particularly challenging, at least if you are reading Revelation. Sadly, Luther found it such a puzzle that he advocated tossing it out of the canon of scripture. He said, “Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” Calvin thought it should be canonized but in my complete set of Calvin’s Commentaries, the last book upon which he comments is Jude. God has spoken to us through prophets and Apostles and through pastors and teachers but nowhere does he speak so clearly as when Jesus spoke.

The words of Jesus are not mumbled. Even when his disciples had difficulty  comprehending him, he stopped to make matters clear. When Jesus spoke in parables, those men and women who hung on his every word were often confused. So he would lovingly chastise them, When are you going to understand? Then he would spell it all out. The parable of the sower and the seed is a good example.

And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:4-15)

So why speak in the parable at all? Why not just jump to the explanation? Have you noticed that in this parable, if you were asked to tell the story, you would tell about how the seed fell on the different types of ground and may not even tell about the explanation? And if you give the explanation, you have to think about the parable first. This is similar to attending college. Every professor is going to give you books to read. Then the next class, they will tell you what you read. Why not just skip to the lecture? Because it is the combination of reading and listening that makes the subject clearer.

Nevertheless, professors find it still isn’t clear to some of their students. I am just such a case because professors often mumble. I read the assignments and go to the lectures and end up saying, “If you want me to hear you, you have to speak up.” Of course, what I mean is, Tell me in way that makes sense in my world. I had one professor, who after explaining some theological conundrum, just to be sure his slower students understood, would recall a scene from The Simpsons cartoon the night before, and say, “I guess it’s sort of like that.” It is troubling how many times I was then found to go, “Ohhhhh!”

In ages past God spoke through the prophets and people were puzzled. When Jesus, who is the very image of God, came and taught the multitudes that he was the “radiance of the glory of God,” some people were disturbed; they just could not or would not hear it. But many people were finally saying, “Ohhhhh.” When God spoke through his Son, the mumbling of former times ceased.

For those who are disturbed because you think the Old Testament makes perfect sense and never was a mumblin’ word spoken there, let me say two things. One, you better understand the Old Testament because of Jesus. How can you fully understand some of the Psalms (just to mention one book) without Jesus? How incompletely the ancients understand Psalm 22—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) “They have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Psalm 22:16b-18) or perhaps the question is better stated, how else can one more fully understand these verses than with Jesus’ explanation of the prophetic parable?

The other thing, if you think the Old Testament doesn’t sometimes mumble, is that when you decide Ezekiel’s visions make perfect sense, get back to me about whether he was “mumbling” or not. In Jesus, however, we have no mumblin’ word. He is clear. So why not just begin with him and be done with it? The prophets are the homework that make the lecture called Jesus clear. For example, the Old Testament slowly develops the idea of a need for a gracious Messiah. Even by Jesus’ time, the Jews were simply looking for someone anointed of God to deliver them from their Roman oppressors. But in Jesus, people began to understand that it was not the Roman Empire that oppressed them, it was their sin. It takes awhile for the truth to become clear—especially when you have been wandering in your darkness. The truth was always there but it was not spoken clearly enough or with an illustration sufficient to make one exclaim, “Ohhhhh!”

This illustration may be a bit off for moderns because of digital photography but the photographic darkroom is a good example of what the writer of Hebrews is saying. I used to sometimes find rolls of film I had forgotten to develop. Sometimes a month or so after shooting a roll, I would develop it and make prints. Very often, the reverse image of the negative only made what I had shot even less clear. When I enlarged the image in the red safe-light of the darkroom, I still might not perceive what image I had shot. Then I put the white photo-paper into the developing tray and slowly sloshed the liquid over and under the paper. Gradually a black and white image would begin to appear and awareness would steal over me.

What I had been seeing very small and backwards in the dark was now large and clear in the light. If I had set up the shot correctly and exposed the film just right, I could remember the day, who I was with, and even the emotions behind why I shot the photograph. If I shot, developed, and printed well, others also could see my impression of that moment in time.

The four-color process of printing is another good example—but one that computer printers have already made obsolete. Yet I hope I never forget the wonder of printing a photograph with four colors of ink for my first time. It was a photograph of the head of a lion with his great mane. I had to print it with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks. To do it right, you have to first imprint the yellow ink before the blue and red and finally black inks. Thin yellow squiggles on white paper are difficult to make out; sometimes they are almost invisible to the naked eye. Then the blue and red inks are added one color at a time and the plain white paper miraculously transforms into something that looks almost real. Black is then printed and the contrasting tone makes it pop! I was giddy. I could not get over the marvel of a process that made four different negatives and printing plates—that by themselves just looked like black-and-white illustrations—come to life. The process is important if one is to marvel at the result.

From the beginning, God made us for himself and to enjoy his company. He also created us to share his glory. He simply gave it to us in the garden but we did not comprehend and asked by eating forbidden fruit, Is this all there is? Then he spoke to us in burning bushes and whirlwinds and pillars of fire. These colorful expressions but not always easy to understand.

Eventually he communicated through prophets—sometimes condemning and other times a bit perplexing. But in these last days, God has articulated himself to us through a Son. God has made perfectly clear what millennia of religious teachings have obscured. The writer of Hebrews uses an excellent word to express this with clarity. Verse three of our lesson says that Jesus is the “exact imprint” of God’s nature. The Greek word used in Hebrews 1:3 is charakter, and is used to explain things like stamping out a copy of a coin or could be used, I suppose, in the darkroom as well. Printing presses can also reproduce perfect copies. But in Jesus, the die is broken. Indeed, this metaphor fails to do him justice even if it helps us understand who he is.

My prints were not the people I photographed. The sheets of paper were not litters of lions. But Jesus is a striking impression of God. In that man from Nazareth of Galilee was the very nature of both God and man. The essence of the Father was struck into Jesus. If that were not the case, then his life and death were in vain.

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My Favorite Prophet

Habakkuk, says—and I paraphrase like a good Midwesterner: Though apple trees do not blossom and there isn’t a single red strawberry to be found, though the corn rots in the husk and the fields produce no wheat, though the cattle die in the fields and the milking barns dry up… I will shout the triumph of Yahweh, I will jump for joy in the God of my salvation. Lord Yahweh is my strength—not the fertile fields. It is he alone who makes me leap like a buck in the mountain passes. I walk with my God in the heights when all around me are sinking in depression. (Hab 3:17-19 and excerpted from the next post)

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Deal With It


James 5:13-20
September 27, 2009

Augustine, the fourth century Bishop of the Church in Hippo, Africa (modern-day Annaba, Algeria), said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rest in Thee.” This seems related to the much older rabbinical teaching that a man cannot be healed until he deals with his sins. The Jews had a basic tenet that we learned about in our midweek Bible classes earlier this year. Yes, I am about to quiz my students once again. This is not a rhetorical question; I am somewhat eager to know if things I have taught by saying over and over again and giving examples from scripture and life actually soak in. So if you know the answer, say it out loud. Here we go…

What is the name of the code wherein it is stated that if you do good, you will receive blessing and if you do evil, you will receive curse? If you need a hint, recall that I referred to it as more of a principle than a formula.

Well, I’d hoped more had remembered but that’s the way it goes in seminary classes too. The professors always hope more students know the answers than it turns out do, so you are, I suppose, in excellent company. It doesn’t only happen in Church Bible classes that students don’t recall the answers at quiz time.

The answer to my question is the Deuteronomistic code or more precisely, if you listened closely, the Deuteronomistic principle. This principle states that God will bless those who do good and curse those who do evil. The early paragraphs of Deuteronomy 28 spell it out and give examples. Job and other places in scripture give exceptions to the rule. But it is a rule nonetheless. God gets to break his own rules, if there is a greater purpose in doing so. For example, Job’s religious actions caused him to think, at least somewhat, that his religion was the source of his blessing. This is always a danger. God however—though he was proud of Job’s devotion—wanted more than mere religion for Job. So he broke his “rule” to get to the “principle” within the rule. Religion is supposed to bring us face-to-face with God, not simply make us religious or even better people. This principle within the Deuteronomistic “rule” is at the heart of today’s New Testament and Gospel lessons and the object of my sermon.

We heard the disciples in Mark 9:38-50 tell Jesus that they were ostracizing people who didn’t follow them. They were not at all concerned about people following Jesus or even teaching Jesus. Their concern was that some fellow they had encountered was casting out demons and doing so in Jesus’ name—but wasn’t following them! (Mar 9:38) This is what happens immediately in what is only religion. Do it our way or hit the highway. The disciples had to be corrected right away. This isn’t to say that there is not sometimes a heresy in the ranks that must be addressed, but if somebody is a Baptist or a Lutheran instead of a Quaker, well, “the one who is not against us is for us.” (Mar 9:40)

Then Jesus gets to the core of their problem—and it was the problem they had always displayed. They wanted to be the leaders, the bosses, or what amounts to demigods or demons or the ubermensch (supermen) of others. They wanted to call the shots and in so doing, they were basically stating a new code—a demonic one—instead of the Deuteronomistic principle. Do it my way or be cursed. Sound familiar?

But even in religion, people who perfectly act out the religious code still get sick and die. This is because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 2:12) And there you see that ultimately, the code works. You do evil, you get cursed; you sin, you die. But what about the sickness that precedes dying?

The week before I went on vacation, I worked over 70 hours for this church. That is fairly religious, wouldn’t you say? Then I went on vacation and got sick. Where’s the fairness in that?! Job would cry out. I did what you wanted me to do and I get cursed. Let me be honest with you: sometimes I feel just like Job did. Why doesn’t our church grow more numerically? I’ve been faithful. I’ve taught people the word. I am faithful even when I don’t feel like doing this anymore. Even in the face of adversity and supposed defeat, I persevere. So how come there are not more results? Where is the blessing?

Of course, I am making an example and can name for you blessing after blessing that has happened here in these past ten years of service to you and our Lord. But I can just as surely name the defeats. I wonder; are they defeats or should we call them curses? And if they are curses, how do we deal with them before God and his Church?

The Jews have long believed three things that are based on the aforementioned Deuteronomistic code. One, sickness is caused by sin in a person’s life. That is why Job’s so-called comforters or friends insisted Job had sinned. They believed the age-old teaching that if you’re sick, and your loved ones died early, and your crops fail, and your cattle gets stolen, then you must have done something wrong—seriously wrong. And they believed this religiously. Job, on the other hand, believed just as religiously that he had done nothing wrong and therefore, God was in the wrong. He did not say this out loud; but I imagine he was thinking it. Religion always thinks that way. It is faith that dares to think differently. And so my favorite prophet, Habakkuk, says—and I paraphrase like a good Midwesterner: Though apple trees do not blossom and there isn’t a single red strawberry to be found, though the corn rots in the husk and the fields produce no wheat, though the cattle die in the fields and the milking barns dry up…I will shout the triumph of Yahweh, I will jump for joy in the God of my salvation. Lord Yahweh is my strength—not the fertile fields. It is he alone who makes me leap like a buck in the mountain passes. I walk with my God in the heights when all around me are sinking in depression. (Hab 3:17-19) That is faith! But for the moment, let us get back to religion.

The first tenet of the ancient rabbinical teaching, based on the Deuteronomistic code, was that if you seemed cursed you must have sinned. Second, if you wanted to be healed, you need to do two things. The first action was to confess your sins. This is where the New Testament lesson really comes into play. James, of course, knew the teachings of the rabbis. He had himself become a teacher. He was a student of Rabbi Jesus and would be teaching his lessons to his own disciples. So here we see this second tenet come into James’ thoughts. Call on the elders or other righteous people and confess your sins. (Jam 5:16) That is the first half of the teaching. Before we go on with the second half, I want to stress the first half just a bit.

Some would throw out this notion of confession with the Roman Catholic bath water. But to do so is to throw out the baby (Judaism) as well. And to do that is to throw out Jesus. Of course, that would be nothing new to religion. Religious types are always trying to get rid of Jesus. Jesus knew that the casting out of some demons required prayer and others required fasting as well as prayer. (Mat 17:21; Mar 9:29) Here we see that at least persistent sickness may require not only prayer but also confession. James seems to link suffering and sickness with prayer and confession. Now, I am not advocating that we open up a confessional booth in one of the unused Sunday school rooms, or that you go running to an elder in the Meeting every time you come down with a cold. Still, in early Methodism, the Wesley brothers met with the movement a few times each week to, amongst other things, “confess their faults to one another.” (Lee, James Wideman; Luccock, Naphtali; Dixon, James Main, The Illustrated History of Methodism, 85) And no—before you ask it—I am also not advocating confession of sins in Monthly Meetings or Yearly Meetings…though it may do a great deal of good.

So what am I saying? For one, that faith is serious business—much more than our religion typically allows. And for another, that there are sometimes reasons for our illnesses that transcend sneezes, coughs, and lack of rest. Sometimes our illnesses are not just the cold and flu or even cancer and heart disease. At times our illnesses may not even be physical at all. They may be mental or even spiritual. Paul teaches that the whole being is to be made holy, the whole person including spirit, soul, and body. (1Th 5:23) Sometimes our sicknesses are not just physical and perhaps those are the very ones that require fasting and confession along with prayer. Actually, I am not simply suggesting the possibility; I am telling you a spiritual truth. Even more, I will insist to you that these afflictions are ordained of God.

God will stop at nothing to get you out of your religion and back into a right relationship with him. Job’s story (and there are others) proves that is true. So if you are sick or find yourself someday getting ill, in fact sicker and sicker, you may do well to do a little self-diagnosis. Ask yourself, Why am I sick? Why am I tormented? Why does everything I touch fall apart? If you do suspect your actions may be at the root of your illness, you should do this self-diagnostic sooner rather than later because what you have may be contagious. Your illness may spread to your children, your spouse, your friends, and even your church. We affect those around us—no matter how self-righteous we try to make ourselves. Just ask Job’s family if that isn’t the case. Job was not restored to God, nor were his family and fortune restored, until he confessed his sins before both God and man. Notice who was present when he said he was in the wrong. Along with Yahweh were Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu. Sometimes, for serious spiritual defects to be dealt with, confession must also be made to men and women—particularly those whom we have sinned against. There is no other way to deal with it. You cannot get around it with religion or rationalization. Truth and confession are necessary to drive away some evil spirits.

But the third tenet of James’, Jesus’, and the rabbis’ teaching is another that you cannot get around. You must not only deal with yourself in admission of sin and with others in confession of it, you must also deal with God if you are going to deal with sin-sickness. And so, you must pray. You cannot stop with what you can do; you must ultimately rely on what God can do. This is done in the prayer closet. When you have admitted that something is wrong and that you may be or are the cause, and have confessed your participation or even collusion, then pray. Perhaps pray with fasting just to err on the side of serious faith. But prayer is not just for the sinner. Indeed, it seems especially suited to those who are righteous and seasoned in the faith. Pray, fast, and believe in the power of God that mysteriously acts through your prayers. Tennyson wrote, “Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer/Than this world dreams of.” (Van Dyke, Henry Jackson, An Introduction to the Poems of Tennyson, 89) James knew this and reminds us of Elijah’s powerful supplications.

The Lord caused it to rain after a drought that lasted three and a half years. But he did so only after the prophet had prayed. Is there a condition you know of that affects many, a spiritual dryness or even a drought? Deal with it! Do some soul-searching. Confess what God reveals—at least to him and in very serious cases to the ones you have wronged and to those who are able to help you recover. And if you are aware of someone else’s sickness, pray for all God is worth. Your prayers may restore that person to a right relationship to God and his Church, just as Elijah’s prayer restored the rain. Elijah’s prayer restored the balance of nature. Your prayers may restore a soul to the Kingdom.

Sermon audio and PDF

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Where Have You Been?


“Where Have You Been?”
James 3:1-12
September 13, 2009
Homecoming Sunday

Mark Twain once said that “it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” He probably shouldn’t have said that since it very likely offended someone. It is so easy to say the wrong thing or to have someone take what you say the wrong way—the way you didn’t intend it to be taken. A friend said the other day that someone might as well not even work where she worked since they rarely came to work anyway. I looked at her like I couldn’t believe what she had just said. She looked back at me and said without pausing, “I didn’t mean that to sound ugly; I was just stating the truth.”

The great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright said, “The truth is more important than the facts.” Many Westerners have a difficult time with his claim because we associate the truth with facts. But we should know better. American politicians especially, but also newscasters have been infamous for twisting the facts into their version of the truth. Evidently this spinning of the facts into a distortion of the truth that is sometimes maddeningly difficult to argue with was prevalent when our 16th president was in office. Abraham Lincoln rightly said, “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four; calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” The premise we begin with affects the outcome. We may say, “Well, the facts are ma’am, that this here appendage is not a tail; it’s a leg.” But everyone knows it’s a tail.

Pontius Pilate asked what he thought was a rhetorical question when he asked, “What is truth?” when Truth stood right in front of him. Col. Jessup said, “You can’t handle the truth,” when the facts were used against him in the court room. The truth is sometimes hard to come by and oftener difficult to explain. Perhaps that is why the great mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal explained, “We know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.”

Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” I think he was talking about something other than facts—something that could not be spun by politicians and news folks and attorneys. I think Jesus was speaking of himself when he said we could know the truth. Certainly he wasn’t speaking of being able to cut through the television chatter and determine if the Democrats or the Republicans were the ones telling the truth this year. When he said we could know the truth, he meant that we could know him. Only in knowing Jesus Christ is truth experienced in such a profound manner that it produces liberty—freedom from the tyranny of  fact spinning. This is in part because he is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. There is constancy in God that one will never find in man.

But how do you come upon this great truth called Jesus? Is it by walking to an altar and having a preacher pray over you? Sometimes. But as Joel said (Joel 2:17) and the band Casting Crowns sings, there is a lot that can be undone between the altar and the door…especially if we take our eyes off of the truth and let them linger too long upon those facts called the people around us.

Last week I wore old shorts, a ratty shirt, and running shoes to preach in so that I could provide a visual of what James said in chapter two, that the man who comes into the assembly in shabby clothing ought to be afforded the same, if not better, treatment as the rich man. Someone said after the service, “Preacher, you hit the nail on the head. My grand kids came to church in jeans once and some folks in church spoke poorly of them for it, and they have never come back to this church or any other church again.” You run a great risk when you take your eyes off the truth and let them focus on the facts. It is always detrimental to stop looking at Jesus so that you can keep boring holes into the ones who offended you.

Last Sunday, of course, by dressing the way I did, I ran the risk of offending someone before I even opened my mouth. And of course once I opened this big trap, all bets were off. It seems like every time I have opened my mouth over the 25 years I have been preaching, someone has misunderstood me. Especially in my first church. Margie always took me wrong and went running to the Senior Pastor to tattle for something I did not say. Well, I mean, I did say those things; that is a fact. But the way she took them was not the way I intended their meaning to be perceived. Usually. The truth of the matter was that I loved Margie and would not want to hurt her. Maybe that is why I love being the Chaplain and friend of so many Police officers. It is not that they always understand my meaning; they mostly just don’t care. I guess they have gotten thick skins from dealing with a certain side of the public.

But is James really concerned here with folks misunderstanding the preacher’s intentions or even someone occasionally saying a colorful word when a hammer hits their thumb? I don’t think so—not in the context of the chapter and the previous chapter for that matter. Those are matters, due to time constraints, better left to commentaries. Let me just cut to the chase and offer you what I think is really being said by James, along with what amounts to a side of embellishment and apology by your preacher.

First of all, I want to say that I am so sorry for anything I or anyone else has said to you over the years that may have offended you and chased you away. Certainly there are those kinds of stories in this church’s history. Maybe no one is present today who has been offended here in the past. But if you are or you hear this over the internet, I am sorry. Sometimes, as I said, we open our mouths and all bets are off. I want to encouraging you however, to please not dwell upon me any other Friend. We aren’t the point; neither is what we said the point. Jesus is the point and what he said is what we need to turn our attentions to. We have to get over our feelings, factual as they may be, and get to the crux. Otherwise, we stay mired in our own distorted realities when Jesus said he wanted to liberate us from those facts.

People have said and are going to say boneheaded things—present company included. We are, after all, just people. No one is master over the tongue. We may have mastered car repair or cooking or building cabinets or taking photographs. But no one is master of their tongue. James said that the tongue sets the world on fire and is the rudder that can cause great ships to wreck. “It is a restless evil,” anxious to cause more trouble. He is a willful person who is able to control that fountain; out of it comes fresh and salt, good and evil, blessing and curse.

If we curse another human being, who is made in God’s own image, are we so much maligning that person or God himself? We need to be very careful with these tongues. All of us. But none so much as the teacher. But even Rabbi Jesus could rankle folks. He said things that really stirred the pot. I guess he was speaking the truth in love. Sometimes I suspect he may have been having some fun at the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ expense. Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off. ” The truth does have a way of getting under your skin. It is supposed to. It’s in the job description. So James cannot mean that we should simply be careful not to offend folks. What was he talking about when he said that not many should become teachers?

Teachers were held in the highest regard in that ancient Church. There was no greater honor bestowed upon a family than that they take in their rabbi, taking care of his every need. Therefore people were eager to be teachers. And some of them should never have been teachers. I have had some of those folks as teachers. They couldn’t teach their way out of a wet paper pulpit. I have also been blessed by exceptional teachers and professors. It doesn’t seem to make much difference whether they are young or old but what does make a difference is maturity and experience. Some of the things I said from the pulpit as a young preacher, make me shudder when I think of them. Young preachers and preachers in general should be very careful about what they teach for they will be held more accountable for their words than others. This is because of ripple effect. Some preacher says something to a church and suddenly 100 people take it as gospel and start preaching it. So you better be careful what you say, teachers. That’s what James is saying.

Heresy or false teaching is all-too-easy to get caught up in. It gives you a corner on the truth. In other words, you have a few facts picked up from a verse or maybe a cross reference, if we are really fortunate, and a dogma spewed forth upon all who are unfortunate enough to be nearby. There is none so annoying or dangerous as the one who thinks he knows the truth because he has a single fact in hand. Read whole paragraphs, whole letters, complete books and testaments, indeed, the entire Bible—and that, many times—before pronouncing your doctrines as law upon the Church.

There are people who will not worship with other Believers because they do not use the right English translation. There is no dogma more bland and pathetic. There is no doctrine that sounds any more like that famous doctrine, We’ve never done it that way before and we ain’t changing now, than that one. I defy most Christians to read the original King’s English of 1611 and understand a word of it. And it is not so much because they cannot understand archaic English; it is because they cannot read. Oh, they can read words; they know the facts that G-O-D spells god and that D-O-G spells dog. But do they perceive the truth of what connected words and sentences mean? Most Christians I have known wouldn’t know a metaphor if it clobbered them over the head or the meaning of a parable unless the Rabbi explained it to them. And before you get offended, please understand that is precisely what Jesus had to do for both his disciples and us (in scripture). We are just as numbskulled as Peter ever was. Let us confess it; it may be good for the soul and will certainly be good for the Church and our families.

It is easy to say the wrong thing and just about as easy to teach a heresy, unless we do as James said earlier in his letter. I paraphrase 1:19: Slow down, shut up, and simmer down. But that probably offends someone. And if that didn’t, let’s try this on for size: Television has proved that most of us aren’t even as smart as a fifth grader. So why don’t we just admit it and get over ourselves? No one has a corner on truth—not even teachers and preachers. But we can know the Truth…and he will set us free…if we will keep our eyes on him and off the words of others. Jesus said it well to Peter in today’s gospel lesson, “You’re setting your mind on the things of man, not on the things of God.”

One of my favorite Zen stories has two monks, Tanzan and Ekido, traveling down a muddy road after a heavy rain. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk komono and sash, unable to cross the intersection. “Come on girl,” said Tanzan. At once he lifted her in his arms and he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, especially young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

What load of “facts” are you carrying? Where have the facts left you? Where has your heart been focused over the years and where has that left you? Where have you been all these years? Some of us are still riled over something someone said or did years ago? You probably misunderstood those facts for truth anyway. And even if you didn’t, there is a greater truth to be learned: Jesus. Some of us have yet to learn the truth. That’s why we are in bondage to someone else’s words. And they probably didn’t mean them anyway.

Where have you been? It’s time to come home. To Jesus.

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