Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Perfectly Adequate Church

James 1:1-18
September 9, 2012
William G. Carter

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

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.

My good friend Bill McSwegin is gone a few years now. When he was among us, he made his way around the churches to see how they were doing. That was the kind of job he had – pastor to the pastors, executive pastor to the presbytery. And he regularly used a phrase on Sunday morning to greet the preacher after the sermon. He came up with a twinkle in his eye, moustache twitching, and he said, “That was a perfectly adequate sermon.”

Perfectly adequate. What did he mean by that?

A perfectly adequate sermon – maybe that means the sermon you get today is as good as it gets. It fulfills basic needs, and not much more. The preacher showed evidence of wrestling with the scripture text, found a couple of nuggets worth sharing, did not trip over the tongue more than a half-dozen times, and wrapped it up in a suitable time frame. Perfectly adequate.

Remember the last time you went to a perfectly adequate restaurant. The menu was predictable. The food was served without much of a wait. The wine was not watered down. The service was competent. You were not hungry when you went out to the parking lot. Perfectly adequate.

Imagine saying to your friends, “I have perfectly adequate children.” What would that mean? I suppose it could mean a lot of things. They eat their vegetables. They keep their rooms clean. They manage low B’s on their report cards. Best of all, they remember your birthday.

So what would it mean to say we have a perfectly adequate church? Perhaps it suggests that a respectable percentage of the pews have somebody sitting in them. Most of those assembled look pretty modest; the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average. An adequate church has reasonable expectations. They know every Sunday is not a jazz revival. The notes of the first choir anthem of the season land where they should. The offering plates reveal a post-vacation bump. And everything goes along as it always does. Perfectly adequate.

Except it sounds a little different when Brother James says it. The phrase he uses is “lacks nothing.” The church “lacks nothing.” They have been through some testing. They show some endurance. They reveal themselves to be perfectly adequate. They “lack nothing.”

We know people like this, don’t we? His wife is sick. The diagnosis catches them by surprise. She needs critical care. He goes every day to sit with her, even though she cannot do much more than sleep. But he goes every day. Eight in the morning, he pulls on his jacket, takes the car keys out of his pocket, and drives down to her room. He does that every day for two weeks. She looks at him with silver eyes and says, “You don’t need to push it. I’m not going anywhere.” He smiles silently and takes her hand.

One afternoon the doctor stops in to say, “I think we see a turn for the better.” All those prayers have gotten them through the vigil. A few days later, they both return home, worn out but relieved. They are different people. They have gotten through.

James writes to Christians who have been slogging through it for a while. Not quite a hundred years, but they have stuck around through the bumps on the road and the boredom of the straightaway. He begins this collection of Christian advice by noting simply that faith can be lived without a heightened sense of drama. We don’t need a lot of wattage. Don’t need to bring in a bevy of excitable people (whom James calls “unstable”). Don’t need to chase after things that entice us; these, he reminds us, are empty temptations. No, says James. Stay the course. Keep your wheels on the road. We are perfectly adequate in our endurance.

This is the voice of stability. We see it in those people who just keep going. God works on them over time. Have you been to the anniversary dinner? People are honored for keeping long promises. There may be little about them that is flashy or exhilarating. Hollywood will never make a movie about their lives. Perhaps an unstable culture would consider them boring. But James seems something healthy, something steady, something that matures over time. And those around them are changed mysteriously for the better.

Endurance is the first sign of a perfectly adequate people, a perfectly adequate church. And to burrow down to a deeper level, what makes endurance possible is the ability to receive. It’s the spiritual ability that knows everything we need over time is offered as a gift from heaven. Perfectly adequate people learn to receive everything from God.

James says, “If anybody is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” Later on in the book, he says, “Is anybody among you suffering? Go ahead and pray. Are any of you sick? Call for the elders of the church and have them pray, and the Lord will raise you up.” There is something important here. Prayer is the practice of dependency. We do not pray because we are competent. We do not pray because we are complete. We pray because we depend on God. We pray because it is God’s generosity that makes us adequate.

This is one of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life. The strongest Christian is the one who depends most on God. The most competent Christian is the one who prays for forgiveness every day. In a do-it-yourself, pull-yourself-up society, this doesn’t make any sense. But it is a profoundly Christian truth, uttered by Jesus as the opening line of the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the strong” – no, he doesn’t say that. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

It reminds me of that Bible story from a few weeks ago. Jacob is running away after swindling his brother. Exhausted, he puts his head on a stone and goes to sleep. And what does he dream? A ladder extending between heaven and earth. And what’s happening on the ladder? Angels going up and coming down. There is a circular activity between heaven and earth.

As a preacher friend points out,

Overflowing generosity is the quality that describes the triune God. From God’s very being, all gifts of every variety flow freely and generously upon us. The usually somber John Calvin gushed that he “that he was ravished with astonishment” at the generosity of God, whose love knows no bounds and whose mercy is everlasting. (Have to love that phrase: “ravished with astonishment”!)[1]

We pray in our need, and James says, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” God’s generosity makes us adequate.

Beyond endurance, beyond dependence and receptivity, there is one particular gift that James encourages us to pray for. It’s the gift of wisdom. Wisdom. That is an unusual word. It’s not the same thing as intelligence. Some of us have met smart people who aren’t very bright. They park their car beneath a falling tree. Fred Craddock, the preaching professor, used to describe the student who got a 4.0 and missed the point. Or the expert in Bible Law who approved of Jesus when he said we should love our neighbors, but who really didn’t want to see a Samaritan as his neighbor.

When the Bible speaks of wisdom, it speaks of an applied knowledge. Wisdom is holding together the “knowing” and the “doing.” It is a gift of experience; go around the track a number of times and you learn how the track moves. Wisdom is a gift from God, a holy insight that stitches together the word and the deed. As James declares in his letter, “If people think they are religious and cannot bridle their tongues, their religion is worthless and they deceive themselves. Pure religion is to care for the needy in their distress.” The Word from above is expressed in the deed down below.

Have you known the person with that kind of wisdom? I think of the college professor with a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, intelligent and well-read, as smart as they come, and his professional specialty was working against discrimination in any form. A successful Sunday School graduate, he went to seminary, aiming to become a preacher. But he quickly became disillusioned when the teachers in his Christian school were silent as his country got entangled in an unjust war. So he took that disillusionment as God’s call on his life to go in a different direction. He is smart, humble, and completely integrated.

I think of the woman who wears out her knees in prayer. She prays for the sick, she prays for the healthy, she prays for the people who don’t think they need it, and she prays for her pastor and his ex-wife. Every day she prays, and you can see it in the light in her eyes which never diminishes.

I recall the teacher, looking at retirement, wanting to stay active and do something significant with her life. So she gets dirty mucking out houses that were flooded down river one year ago today.

And I think of the internet photo that somebody sent me yesterday. It’s a picture of a restaurant receipt. A young couple with kids discovered that their meal was paid for. The donor wrote on their receipt, “Somebody once paid for our diner when we were young parents and it made a mark on us. The foundation of this gesture was good parenting. Keep up the good work. Time goes by so fast.”

These are glimpses of pure and unstained religion, lived out in Christian wisdom, holding together the Word and the deed. And should this happen among us, we would be a perfectly adequate church – enduring, receptive, and wise.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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