Worship Where You Are

The Worship Where You Are blog contains what we think of as "first drafts" of the sermon for each week.  They are prepared mid-week for people who might not be able to be present on Sunday morning but wish to still participate in the worship experience.  They contain scripture, the sermon text, a few questions to ponder and a closing prayer.  May they help you in your faith journey.

All Bible verses come from the Common English Bible

Acts of Worship: Confession

Psalm 51

Psalm 51

For the music leader. A psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came

to him just after he had been with Bathsheba.

51 Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
    Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
2 Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
    purify me from my sin!
3 Because I know my wrongdoings,
    my sin is always right in front of me.
4 I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
    I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
    completely correct when you issue your judgment.
5 Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
    from the moment my mother conceived me.
6 And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
    you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.

7 Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
    wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and celebration again;
    let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
9 Hide your face from my sins;
    wipe away all my guilty deeds!
10 Create a clean heart for me, God;
    put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
11 Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
    please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
12 Return the joy of your salvation to me
    and sustain me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
    and sinners will come back to you.

14 Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
    so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
15 Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
16 You don’t want sacrifices.
    If I gave an entirely burned offering,
    you wouldn’t be pleased.
17 A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
    You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.
18 Do good things for Zion by your favor.
    Rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.
19 Then you will again want sacrifices of righteousness—
    entirely burned offerings and complete offerings.
        Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

Wednesday was Yom Kippur, which is the day of atonement in the Jewish tradition. On this day, Jews across the world gather in synagogues to confess their sins and seek atonement from God. Seeking atonement for one’s sins however starts long before this high holiday. Before one can begin to ask God for forgiveness, one first has to admit one’s mistakes and then seek forgiveness from the person you have wronged. Atonement from God is the culmination of a process of taking responsibility for our actions. It is not a shortcut to grace, but the completion of a transformation that occurs in an individual.

The Christian faith, with its understanding of a grace that comes from Jesus Christ, has changed a lot about how we view sin and repentance, but in this area, our stance has changed little. We still believe there is a need for a person to own up to their mistakes and to seek the forgiveness of the person they have sinned against before they seek God’s grace. In the gospels, Jesus teaches his followers that before one brings an offering to the Lord one should first go and find the person they have wronged and apologize. Thanks to Christ, God’s grace is available to all, but to receive it fully we need to accept our need for that grace, and that requires us to confess our sins, not just to ourselves, but to God and those we have wronged.

If you are like me, when you read the Psalms it is easy to skip past the headings at the beginning of the texts. There is not a heading on all of them, and some of them are pretty basic like “a Psalm,” or “Of David,” or “To the leader: with stringed instruments.” None of these really changes how we read the psalm. Psalm 51 is different. The heading on this psalm tells us it is from David, after Nathan has convicted him of his sins in how he treated Bathsheba and Uriah. This is not an ideal psalm of a poet expressing regret for a minor infraction. This is the confession of a king who abused his power to sleep with one person and kill another.

Now, I will take some exception to this psalm, David mentions that he has sinned against God alone, and I would argue that this is not true. David has sinned against Bathsheba, Uriah, and all the people who trusted him to be their leader and to behave honestly. David has also sinned against God who blessed him and called him to lead the people. Ownership of his mistakes and confession of his sins does require him to acknowledge that harm that he has done to God. In my mind he must also do something to repent and atone for his sins to others. Scriptures make no real mention of any confession he might have made to Bathsheba or Uriah’s family and since David and Bathsheba have a son together it seems likely some atonement occurred. What I want to highlight is that earnest repentance does not merely mean confessing our sins to God, but also to those we have harmed.

What I love about this passage is the distinction that David makes about God’s desire not for sacrifices but a broken spirit. Burnt offerings have long been a sign of repentance. The slaughter of animals and the burning of them, is a way of paying a cost for our mistakes. David is highlighting the fact that these costs are not what God is really after. They are the product of our broken spirit not a substitute for it.

Take for a moment parking tickets: they are not really common here in Willmar but are a frequent occurrence in bigger cities like Minneapolis or Chicago, where I went to school. If you think of breaking a parking law as a sin, then the fine is a part of our repentance, our debt to society. Another way to view the fine however is merely the cost for parking where you want to. Where I lived in Chicago there were streets that had weekly street sweeping which meant you needed to move your car by 7:00 am or get a ticket. Many a morning I would be bolting out of the apartment at 6:55 to go and move the car to avoid such a fine. A wealthier person than me might merely see the ticket as the cost they must pay to stay in bed a little longer. When they pay the fine, they are not really repenting of their bad action, merely paying a cost to park their car somewhere.

Our sacrifices to God are not merely us paying the cost of our choices. Rather, they are meant to reflect our earnest feelings that we have wronged. God does not want us to pay for our mistakes, God wants us to repent of our mistakes. God wants us to seek to be in a good relationship with God, with our neighbors and with ourselves. When we sin, when we break that relationship, what God needs is not a dead animal or a monetary gift. Instead, what God needs is for us to accept our failings, acknowledge the harm we have done, and seek to do better.

In our congregation we do not do weekly confession in worship, though maybe we should. It still is an important act of worship. If worship is about deepening our relationship to God, then confession is important because it is an acknowledgement of the brokenness in that relationship. One piece of advice I received from my grandfather at my wedding was to never go to bed mad at each other. (We have both tried to do this in our eleven plus years together) I think the same advice applies in our relationship to God. We need to make confession a regular part of our worship of God because otherwise we cannot have a complete relationship to God. If we cannot admit our mistakes or hide them from God, we are damaging our relationship. In order to worship God and grow closer to God, we need to admit just how far we are from God at times.

The act of confession in worship has three parts, there is the prayer of confession and pardon, the words of assurance, and the passing of the peace. First, we admit our sins, then we are forgiven those sins, and then we pass on that grace to those around us. Just as God has released us from our sins to God, so too are we to forgive those who have sinned against us. All three parts are important when it comes to worship and confession.

David highlights this in his cry to God. His plea is that if God will forgive him, then David will teach other wrongdoers about God. David is ready to pass along the grace and forgiveness he has received to others. We are challenged to do the same. Like David we must take ownership of our mistakes. Like David we must confess them to God and seek God’s grace. Finally, like David we need to take the grace that God has given to us and extend to all we meet.

Amen

Questions to Ponder:

What do you think of when you think of confession?

When is a time you have asked forgiveness of someone for a mistake you made?

Is there someone in your life that has asked for your forgiveness and you have struggled to give it?

How do we experience God’s grace when we do confess?

Prayer:

Ever-loving God, like David we fall short of who we are called to be. We fail to follow you and to love you like we should. We fail to love our neighbors and we even fail to love ourselves. Forgive us, God, we pray. Help us to know that when we sin, all that is needed is for us to confess it and your grace will be offered. We give you thanks, for your unending love and grace that we see in the life, death, and resurrection of your son, our savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen

Acts of Worship: Prayer

Matthew 6:5-15

Showy prayer

5 “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 6 But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

Proper prayer

7 “When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. 9 Pray like this:

Our Father who is in heaven,

uphold the holiness of your name.

10 Bring in your kingdom

so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.

11 Give us the bread we need for today.

12 Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,

just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.

13 And don’t lead us into temptation,

but rescue us from the evil one.

14 “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

A lot of people might not realize it, but this passage is probably one of their favorite ones in the Bible. Most of us do not like to pray in public and here in Matthew we have a clear command from Jesus to not pray in public. We can all heave a big sigh of relief. Next time your pastor tries to get you to lead a prayer before a meeting or your families members look expectantly at you for the Thanksgiving dinner prayer, you can just say Matthew 6:6 and bow your head for a moment of silent prayer.

Why is it that so many of us, pastors included, do not like public prayer? Some of us are just shy and do not like public speaking of any form, but that does not explain why so many people do not like it or why we might be reluctant to prayer even in a more private setting like our family dinner table. I think the reason is deeper. In Luke, when Jesus teaches the disciples the Lord’s Prayer it is in response to a question about how to pray. From my experience the reality is a lot of us are not comfortable with how to pray. For that reason, whether it is in public or private we do not like to lead prayer because beyond the familiar and known prayers we are not sure what to say.

Last week we talked about the importance of remembering why we praise God as the heart of our worship experience. Prayer is important because it is how we are in a relationship with God. Relationships require communication and prayer is part of how we communicate with God. This week we will look at how we pray so that it might help to build on our sense of how we worship God and how we stay in relationship with God.

I mentioned that Matthew 6:6 could be used as a reason to not pray in public but I think that this would be a mistake. Jesus is not actually decrying public prayer, like we do in church. Rather, Jesus is instructing the crowds to remember why we are praying. If we are having a private prayer with God, we should do so in private. On the other hand, if the purpose of the prayer is for the community to connect to God, then we can pray in a community.

Knowing why we pray is helpful in another way, it helps us know what we want to say. When I was a little kid I remember being horrified about having to call a friend from school and invite them to my birthday party. I do not know why that experience was so terrifying, but it was the start of a long life of not liking to make phone calls. When I am calling someone I often take some time before hand to think about why I am doing it and so what I want to say. Am I calling to ask for a favor? Am I calling to see how they are doing? Am I calling for information? When I know why I am calling it helps to think about what I want to say and to get over some of the nerves I still feel to this day.

When we get ready to pray it is good to think about why we are doing it. Are we asking for God’s blessings on our food? Are we praying to God to give thanks for something that has happened in our lives? Are we lifting up someone who is hurting and in need? Are we just praying because we want to talk and hear God’s voice? All of these reasons shape how we pray and give us something to think about as we form our words. Each one gives us a different purpose for what we are saying and helps us to know how to say it.

There is lot to love about the Lord’s Prayer. First of all, it gives us something that is easy to remember which can be good. Memorizing prayers can make it easier to know what to say when we want to pray. Another thing that is great about it is how it covers all the important bases. It starts with praise for God, helping us to remember that “why” we talked about last week. Next, we pray for God’s will to be done. One of the biggest dangers with prayer is that we make it about us and reduce God to another version of Alexa or Siri. When we pray for God’s will to be done, it keeps us from our own selfish instincts. We pray to God for our daily bread, which is a reminder of how we need God in our life each day, and how even the things we think of providing for ourselves, like food, ultimately come from God. We ask God for forgiveness, and again we remember that it is not just about us, but about those around us. Finally, we put our trust again in God because God has been, is, and always will be.

There is a rich fullness to the Lord’s Prayer that speaks to the deep yearnings and needs of our hearts. It runs the gambit from our physical needs to spiritual needs. It helps us to remember our place in the world and with God. Finally, it keeps us focused on doing God’s work. If you need to pray, and don’t know what to say, you can never go wrong with the Lord’s Prayer.

I will say there is one danger that I have found with the Lord’s Prayer, it can become so familiar that we lose our focus on it. Most of us find it hard to think about one thing and talk about another. The danger with the Lord’s Prayer is it becomes so familiar to us that we can be tempted to do just that. I know I can find it hard on a Sunday to be focused on the words I am saying and not moving ahead in my mind to whatever is next in the worship service. Parents who use the same table grace each night might have a similar experience when your kids can rattle off the prayer without really thinking about it. When that happens maybe it is either time to slow down or to switch things up. We don’t pray before a meal because saying the words is important. We pray before a meal because we want to be mindful of the God who has given us the food that is before us and offers us a nourishment far greater than any meal we could ever eat.

Praying does not have to be hard. Praying can be easier when we just let it express what is on our hearts. We do not need perfect words and beautiful images. Instead, our prayers to God should be open and honest. If you look at the psalms, they express a deep range of emotions. Some of them even take a pretty hostile stance towards God at times. The reason is that they are expressing real feelings. We are not always happy with God. Sometimes we can feel hurt by God or be mad at God. These feelings need a place in our prayers as well. We cannot be in a full relationship with God if we keep things from God. We cannot be faithful to God if there are things we hide from God or do not trust God with. We need to be honest with God about what we are thinking and feeling. Our prayers need to reflect it all.

If we are going to worship God with our whole heart, we need to share those whole heart with God. We need to lift up the good and the bad. We need to express our joys and frustrations. We need to share our hopes and we need to listen to God and hear what God has to say. When we can do this, then our prayers will be a part of how we worship the God who created us, knows us, loves us, and is always with us. Thanks be to God.

 

Questions to Ponder:

What are the ways that you like to pray to God?

Who is someone you know who is good at praying to God?

What are some of your memories or experiences with prayer from when you were younger?

Prayer:

O God, too often our minds grow blank and we struggle to find the right words to say. We stumble in our prayers and mumble our thoughts to you. Give us the courage and clarity to open ourselves up more to you. Help us to find the ways to speak what is on our hearts. Open our minds up to hear what you are saying as well. Bless us and be with us each and every day. Amen

Acts of Worship: Praise

Job 42:1-6

Job’s second response

42 Job answered the Lord:

2 I know you can do anything;
    no plan of yours can be opposed successfully.
3 You said, “Who is this darkening counsel without knowledge?”
    I have indeed spoken about things I didn’t understand,
    wonders beyond my comprehension.
4 You said, “Listen and I will speak;
    I will question you and you will inform me.”
5 My ears had heard about you,
    but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore, I relent and find comfort
    on dust and ashes.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

There is a YouTube video that I love. It is from a comedian who talks about the importance of knowing your why and your purpose. He gives the example from one of his events where he asked a person in the audience (a music teacher) to sing Amazing Grace. The person sang the song with good execution and sounded great. Then, he told the man to sing it again, but this time to do so like a guy who had gone through problems, been to jail, and was just getting released. The man obliged singing a powerful, soulful version. The difference between the two was once he knew why he was singing it, he could bring it to life.

Knowing why we do something gives it meaning and purpose. Do you do the dishes out of a sense of duty or obligation or do you do the dishes out of love and affection for your partner or parent? Do you ask how someone is doing out of social necessity, or deep compassion for their well-being? Do you come to worship because your parents make, or you feel it is expected, or do you come because of your love for Jesus and your desire to worship God? The reason matters.

The book of Job is a story about a man, Job, struggling to remember the meaning and purpose behind his relationship to God. Job is going through a series of truly horrible events. He has lost his family, his wealth, everything, and he does not know why. His friends are counseling him that he must have done something to deserve this and that if he just repents he will be fine. Job resists their pleas. He has led a blameless life and does not have something to repent for. Instead he challenges God to appear that he might be judged. In the end, God appears, speaking out of a great whirlwind and reminds Job of who God is and who Job is in comparison to God. Confronted with God’s awesome wonder and splendor, Job has an epiphany which is what we read today. He recognizes the arrogance of his own demands and is reminded why it is that God is worthy of our worship and praise. Job repents of his hubris and relents.

The problem for Job in the story is being reminded why it is that we worship and praise God and why it is that we seek forgiveness from God. For the friends, praise and forgiveness are tied to penalties and rewards. They want Job to seek forgiveness so that he might not be penalized. They are focused on the wrong motivation. They think our praise and worship should come out of fear or hope. In their minds we praise God so that we can be spared bad things, or we praise God so that we can get good things. These are not compelling reasons for Job and I think we can understand why.

We all have a slightly different reasons for our praise and worship of God. There are hundreds, probably thousands of different recordings of “Amazing Grace” out there. Singers as far ranging as Elvis Presley and Ani DiFranco have recorded their own versions. The good versions do not simply try and replicate the technical notes of the song but come from the heart of the singer. Ani DiFranco’s version is markedly different than one sung in a church on Sunday. Everyone has a slightly different experience of God and a slightly different reason for why we praise and worship God.

Before we can begin to explore the other parts of worship we need to start with the reasons why we are here in the first place. Why is it that you think God is worthy of praise? What does your relationship with God look like? How have you experienced God in your life? You need to answer for yourself why are you here? Until you know why you are here, your praise and worship will be lacking.

It is my hope that the songs we have sung and will sing today help to capture some of the reasons why we are here. Some of us are here because of God’s amazing grace that we have experienced in our lives. We have made mistakes and yet God has loved us just the same. That love, and that grace has brought us closer to God and is the reason that we lift our voices in praise. Others have experience God’s presence stirring in the midst of creation. In the grandeur of a mountain, the stillness of a lake, the vastness of the ocean, the microscopic detail and beauty of a snowflake. All around us we have seen God’s greatness and we want to celebrate it.

I first experienced God in the beauty and majesty of creation, but if I am honest about why I worship God, it is probably better summed up by the song “You Are Mine” that we sang earlier today. As a quiet and shy child, I know the fear that comes from being alone. I know the uncertainty that comes from wondering if you are worthy of the attention of those around you. Where I have experienced God most deeply is in the acceptance I have found from God and from the church.

My love for God and my reason to worship God is founded on the fact that God first loved me, and that God loves everyone, even those who seem the least deserving, the sinners, the poor, the outcast. This is my why, this is why I am here to praise God, this is why I am pastor. I praise God for the love that God has shown to even an awkward geeky kid like me. I am a pastor to help extend that love to everyone because there are people right now who are hurting and need to know that God loves them. There are people who are lonely right now that need to know that God is with them. The reason I praise God is rooted in the reason that I want to serve God.

We all need to remember our whys. It can be easy to lose it in the routine of going to church every week where it becomes a habit and not a conscious choice. We can forget the why in the midst of distractions like sports and trips to the lake and the crazy busyness of work and life. What is your reason for being here? What is your reason for coming to praise and worship God? How are you rooting your actions in that why and how is it informing your worship?

Once we know our why we can lift our voices in praise. Once we remember how God has made a difference for us, we can worship God better. Like Job, once we have seen and heard of the wonder, the love, the grace of God, then we can join together, with all creation in praising the Lord. Amen

Questions to Ponder:

When have you felt closest to God?

What is your why for worshiping God?

As you thinking about that reason, how does that inform your practices and habits?

Prayer:

God of all creation, you have appeared to each of us in a myriad of ways. Help us to remember the all the ways you break into our lives and bless us. Be with us as we turn our hearts and minds to the worship of you. Help us to get past the distractions that keep us from worship. Help us to get past our own sense of self that makes it hard to see you. Open us up to your presence in our lives each and every day. Amen

Legislating Morality

James 1:17-27

17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.

Welcoming and doing the word

19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.20 This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.

22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.

26 If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless.27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.

 

Mark 7:1-8

What contaminates a life?

7 The Pharisees and some legal experts from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. 2 They saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands. (They were eating without first ritually purifying their hands through washing. 3 The Pharisees and all the Jews don’t eat without first washing their hands carefully. This is a way of observing the rules handed down by the elders. 4 Upon returning from the marketplace, they don’t eat without first immersing themselves. They observe many other rules that have been handed down, such as the washing of cups, jugs, pans, and sleeping mats.) 5 So the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, “Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?”

6 He replied, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. He wrote,

This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far away from me.
7 Their worship of me is empty
    since they teach instructions that are human words.

8  You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.”

Mark 7:14-15

14 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. 15  Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person.”

Mark 7:21-23

21 “It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that evil thoughts come: sexual sins, thefts, murders, 22  adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, arrogance, and foolishness. 23  All these evil things come from the inside and contaminate a person in God’s sight.”

 

Thoughts on the passage:

What is the reason for speed limits? When it comes down to it, what is the reason for any traffic laws at all? The intention of all traffic laws is to keep people safe. Speed limits are defined based on how fast they think it is safe for a car to drive without being too great a danger to others. On small narrow roads, with poor sightlines or lots of pedestrians that might be 30 MPH but on a straight, wide open space, with all the cars moving in one direction and few changes like a freeway that might be 65 or even 75 MPH. Traffic laws all have one aim, to try and keep everyone safe.

In many ways, traffic laws are easy to understand because their goal is easy to understand. When it comes to the laws that govern our country, the reasons can be far less clear. Some laws have existed that enshrined evil practices, like slavery and others that permitted racism and sexism, like voting laws and segregation laws. The value behind these laws might be different than laws prohibiting theft and murder that are trying to create a safe and orderly society.

Understanding our laws can be difficult and the process of interpreting them can be lengthy and expensive. In the end, we are left to trust that the laws of our country are trying to live up to the values that our nation was founded upon. They exist to help form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. If those words sound familiar it is because they come from the preamble of our Constitution which provides the defining purpose for our laws.

Our passages today talk about the laws as well, but these laws do not come from a government but instead come from God. At the same time, there is similar confusion for some people as to the purpose of those laws. Laws are not meant to be an end in themselves, but rather to do something greater. The laws that were given to us by God are not meant just to frustrate or challenge us, rather they are a part of what it means to be in covenant with God and to help us to love God and to love our neighbor.

The Pharisees in our story are struggling to remember the reason for the laws. Instead of caring about why we have these laws, they have become obsessed with making sure that the laws are properly followed. Those of us who like to follow the rules can probably feel some affinity to the Pharisees. I will be the first person to acknowledge that it frustrates me no end when I see people who seem to be flagrantly ignoring traffic laws. To be perfectly honest however, I am not perfect in my own driving and probably far more likely to extend myself grace than the drivers around me. Just like me, the Pharisees are struggling to extend grace when they see the disciples are not following some of the cleanliness laws of the Old Testament.

Jesus takes offense at the criticisms that are directed at him and his followers. He refers to the Prophet Isaiah and a passage that points out the hypocrisy of people who profess to follow God with their lips but fail to do it with their hearts. When people are more passionate about attending to the exact details of the law than they are to the meaning of the law, they have lost their way. The point of our spiritual laws is to help us to love God and our neighbor. The laws are not meant to be the sole measure of our faith.

In a different way, the Letter of James makes a similar point. It is a command to be doers rather than merely hearers of the word it reminds us that there is a purpose behind things like religion and the law. Rituals and practices do not exist in a vacuum but rather are meant to drive us towards something. James defines it as: “to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The point of religion is to help us in our relationship with God, to be “first fruits of creation.”

So why is it important that we know the reason behind the laws rather than just following the laws? One of the things we tend to do in our society is what I call legislating morality. We create laws that try and keep us doing things that are good and prohibit us from doing evil. The temperance movement of the early twentieth century did this. By focusing on making alcohol illegal rather than on helping people not want to drink, it was an attempt to force people to be good.

When we try and legislate morality without educating people as to the reasons, we create a false idol. Instead of helping people to want to be good, we just want them to be lawful. Lawful and good are not the same thing. After all, Thomas Jefferson was lawful to own slaves, but we would hardly call him good for doing so. When we place too much focus on following the rules, we can lose sight of the real reason behind the laws.

Since cellphones became ubiquitous, there as been a struggle to figure out how to handle them when it comes to driving. States have created different laws to govern their use and enforcement of those laws have been a challenge. Part of the problem is that we as drivers are often not focused on the real goal, keeping our roads safe. If this was our value, then we never would have seen the wave of distracted drivers that has prompted so many laws in the last few years. Even still, people like me struggle to remember that what is most important is not can I legally do this but is it safe for me to do this. You can get arrested for speeding while going slower than the speed limit if the conditions warrant a much slower speed.

The Letter of James is famous for its argument that faith without works is dead. Simply going through the actions without believing in what you are doing is equally meaningless. We need to get back to the heart of our faith, that is our relationship with God. The laws we follow are meant to help us to love God and each other. Our actions, worship, Bible study, fasting, communion, and so forth are all there to help us grow deeper in that relationship.

It is easy to get caught on the literal meaning of things. It is easy to become obsessed with following the rules and forget their real intent. The challenge we have in our faith is to remain focused always on God and let that focus define our words, our actions, and fill our hearts. Amen

Questions to Ponder:

Are you someone who likes to adhere to rules or do you find them annoying and cumbersome?

What are some rules when it comes to the church that you have found helpful and what are some that you have found to be a hinderance to your faith?

What do we need to do to remind us more often of the reason behind the rules?

How do we help people have the tools to make decisions rather than letting our laws make those decisions for them?

Prayer:

O God, you have given us laws and commandments to follow, but most importantly you have given us your son. In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, help us to see you. Help us to faithful follow Christ that through our actions we might draw closer to you. Bless us as we seek to love you and to love our neighbors. Amen