This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/26/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: James 5:13-20 & Mark 9:38-50. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
Have you ever played the board game, Othello? Great game. I played it a lot in grade school. I remember the game’s motto, printed on the little cardboard box: “A minute to learn… a lifetime to master!” And I think that Othello delivered pretty well on its basic promise: It’s a game that even a young child can pick up very quickly. But it is also a game that continues to be interesting, complex, and rewarding for many years to come.
Reading our passages from James and Mark this morning, I am reminded that Christianity is a lot like this. Our faith is not that complicated. Even a small child can understand it. God loves us so much that he sent his son Jesus to be with us, to die for us, and to live through us in his resurrection. In response to God’s love, we are called to love God with everything we’ve got, and to love the people around us as we love ourselves.
Not complicated, right? No. It’s not hard to understand. Practically everyone – kids, adults, and old people – can grasp the plot here.
But when it comes to practicing it? That’s more challenging. Minutes to learn, a lifetime to master.
I like James because he’s so practical. He reminds me of Dorothy Kakimoto. He doesn’t mince words; he tells us his message directly and clearly. He says, “Are you suffering? Pray. Are you happy? Sing! Is someone sick? Get the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. Confess your sins to one another. Pray for one another for healing. Prayer works.”
It’s not complicated. Take care of one another. Depend on one another. Love each other. How hard is that?
Based on my own experience of life in community, it can be hard. We humans struggle to do these simple things. The Christian walk isn’t hard to understand, yet we often fail to move our feet. A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.
We need no-nonsense spiritual fathers like James. We need people who can remind us of our simple faith. A road that is made by walking, which isn’t hard to understand. Showing love to one another in practical ways, in the daily life of community. Pray. Sing. Visit the sick. Mourn the dead. Confess sin. Lend without expectation of return to those who need it. Care for children and educate them in the love and faith of Jesus. In all these ways and more, we become the body and blood of Christ, poured out for one another and for the world.
Did that surprise you, just now, how I made the leap from the mundane to the sublime? From caring for one another, to being the mystical body of Christ, the Word made flesh in our daily lives?
James focuses on the simplicity of the faith. The get-it-done spirit that we all need to get out of our heads and just do the work. But we are also reminded that these simple, even mundane acts, echo in eternity.
When we gather together to worship God, we join the four creatures before the heavenly throne, crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” When we sign hymns of praise, we participate in the songs of the angels. When we visit the sick, we attend to Christ himself. And when we care for one another, when we support each other in this walk of Christian faith, God uses us to transform lives forever.
Our reading from James concludes with these words:
“My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
These simple acts of care and accountability may not be hard to understand, but their impact cannot be understated. As brothers and sisters in Christian community, we are responsible to one another, and we are responsible for one another.
And the stakes are high. In our reading from Mark this morning, Jesus doesn’t mince words, does he? He says anyone who puts a stumbling block before someone who is seeking to follow God would be better off taking a long walk off a short pier! On the other hand, he says that anyone who performs even the most humble act, even giving someone a cup of water to drink, in the name of Christ, will be of great consequence, too. You will by no means lose the reward.
What is Jesus saying here? What’s the meaning behind Jesus’ extreme language and violent imagery? Faith and I were discussing this last night, and I had to admit: Jesus can be a little hard to understand sometimes.
But even if some of the language is off-putting, I think that the message of both James and Jesus is clear: The walk of discipleship is serious business. This is not a game. Our actions have real consequences, both for ourselves and others. We are responsible for one another, and we will be held accountable.
A lot of times, we resist this reality. We live in a culture that teaches us that we are independent, autonomous individuals. At worst, this society encourages us to “follow our bliss”, regardless of the consequences for ourselves or the people around us. But James, always practically-minded, pulls us back to reality. Our lives are not our own. We have been saved by Christ for a purpose. And our actions echo in eternity, for good or for evil.
Jesus doesn’t want his disciples walking blind. We need to know how serious this journey is that we are on. There’s no room for the selfishness that gets in the way of our own salvation, and the salvation of those around us. Our destiny is tied up together. We are one body, we live in one Spirit.
This is a call for us, as Berkeley Friends Church, to walk the path. Minutes to learn, a lifetime to master. God is calling us into that lifetime journey of spiritual mastery – not as autonomous individuals, but as part of a living organism. The church of Jesus Christ. Real people. Real actions. Real responsibility. To God and one another.
So are we feeling happy today? Let’s sing. Do we feel sadness and doubt? Let’s pray together. Are there those among us who are sick, or in financial trouble, or depressed? Let’s show them our love and support. Are there those who are wandering from the truth and need to be called back into the fold? Let’s shepherd one another, submitting to one another in all humility and love.
I know it can be hard to believe, but this community really matters. In the eyes of the world, we are nothing; but in the eyes of God, this community is a powerful bulwark, a great Sequoia, rooted in God’s life and with branches fanning out into the communion of the saints in the heavenlies. The worship we perform; the actions of justice and mercy that God inspires; the care we show for one another; the shepherding we provide to each other when we stray – this is our true life’s work, God living in us.
So don’t be discouraged when you look upon our community life and see such a simple, unassuming group of people – almost not worth noticing by the powerful, glamorous, and successful of this world. Don’t be fooled by our small numbers and quirky appearance. That is not what God sees. Despite all appearances, we are caught up in the most important thing there is, the very mission of God.
A minute to learn, a lifetime to master. Step by step, day by day. Let’s love God. Let’s love one another, and all the people God places in our lives. Let’s pray, and sing, and visit one another. Let’s care for children, teaching them how to be friends of Jesus. Let’s bring healing: physical, emotional, and financial. And when one of us goes astray, let’s go after that lost sheep. Because this is the life of the body. Our God and the whole host of heavenly witnesses rejoice when even one lost sheep is found.