Sunday, May 16, 2021
“Better Together” Sermon Series
Scripture: Psalm 73:1-14 (The Message) &James 1:19-27 (NRSV)
Rev. Kristine Aragon Bruce

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It’s a special day today in the life of our church. We are celebrating our graduates, whether they’ve graduated from high school, college or graduate school. We always take a Sunday to celebrate this great accomplishment. This made me think of the teachers in my life who had a huge impact on me. Math was always a struggle for me. I am not a numbers person. This goes against all Asian-American stereotypes – and while they are true for some, they’re not true for everyone. Case in point: Me. One of my earliest memories was in kindergarten when we were learning how to add by counting these little green trucks. I vividly remember internally crying out for my crayons at my desk. Math was always a struggle for me until I had Mr. Thorenson for math during my junior year of high school. I don’t remember how he taught or what he said exactly, but it was the first math class where I didn’t feel dumb for asking questions, and I felt encouraged. And when we received our grades for the first quiz in that class, I was shocked that I had done well. It was the first time I had gotten an “A” on any math assignment.  Mr. Thorenson must’ve noticed the look of shock on my face because he came over to me and said: “Kristine, you know you can do this, right? Let’s keep working on this. You understand this better than you realize.”  Mr Thorenson’s words of encouragement that day, and every day that year, became so ingrained in me that it changed the way I viewed myself. I began to believe that I could actually do well in math! Similarly, in our scripture this morning, James is challenging this group of early Christians to reflect upon whether or not God’s word has become so ingrained in them that it has changed the way they view themselves and others. If they truly believed in who Jesus was, that he died and rose again and are committed to following him by following his example in how he treated others, then this would show in how they treated one another. Our current sermon series is titled: “Better Together.”  As the world is slowly opening back up and we’re able to gather in person more in worship and in fellowship, we wanted to reflect upon what it means to be the church. To be the church together after being apart for so long. To be who Jesus Christ has called us to be as a fellowship of believers. As Pastor Troy mentioned last Sunday, while we are for sure “Better Together,” this doesn’t mean we always agree. It doesn’t mean we are always on the same page, but it does mean in Jesus Christ we are all still together.  Church conflict is nothing new. Wherever there are people there is conflict. In our passage today, James wants these early Christians to learn how to relate to one another in the midst of their conflict. He wants them to take a step back and remember what they already know: God’s Word is already in them. God’s Word, seen in action in Jesus Christ, is the source from which we draw when we need to be quick to listen, slow to anger, and to care for orphans and widows.  Our actions should reflect what James calls the “implanted word.” The implanted word refers to the message of Christ that was planted in us when we first believed in Jesus. Our own patience in being slow to anger and quick to listen is not enough. We need the help of Jesus Christ to be “quick to listen.” This is hard to do in our world today when we live by a 24-hour news cycle and politicians on both sides of the aisle tend to communicate via 40 character tweets. It is counter-cultural these days to listen. To not just hear the words, but to listen for what is truly being said. To try to understand what another person is really concerned about. We often just wait for someone to finish talking so we can jump in and make the argument that we’re right and they’re wrong. One way to become a better listener is to take the time to pray and ask Jesus for help in hearing what the other person is really saying. At the end of the day you may still not agree with that person and that’s fine, as long as there is an understanding that you still care for each other in the midst of your disagreement. I’ve been convicted by this lately. I listened to a podcast the other day about how to have hard conversations. The guest speaker was Hanna Venizelos who works with the National Conflict Resolution Center and who is trained in conflict resolution. The example of active listening she gave was a conversation about racism. Venizelos gave the example of someone who says: “I understand why people are protesting, but I don’t understand why they have to block the freeway and stop all traffic when I was just trying to get my child to a relative’s house.” The wrong thing to say would be: “How can you be so selfish and not care about those hurting in the African American community?” The better way to respond is to first listen. What is the other person really saying? They had their child in the car during heated protests. They’re concerned with the safety of their family. So that’s where you start. Venizelos suggests the best way to respond is to meet them where they’re at by showing empathy: “I hear you were concerned about the safety of your family and that must’ve been really frightening.”  When we listen to what is truly being said we start those conversations from a place of empathy. In doing so we’ve established that we do care for one another even if at the end of the day we may still disagree. Are we still able to say about someone: “They are my brother or sister in Christ. The love Christ has for them and therefore the love I have for them is not changed by the fact we don’t agree.” This is hard work. The act of listening and showing empathy is difficult. It’s exhausting especially when emotions and convictions are running high. All the more reason we need to rely on Jesus Christ to really see and hear those with whom we disagree and to truly be able to say “I still love you because Christ loves you and we’re called to love each other.” Even in the midst of our disagreements.  James goes on to say that while you’re working on your relationships with one another within the church, don’t forget to be the church. To quote James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” James reminds us that God is the father to the fatherless. It was a patriarchal society in James’s day. If a wife lost her husband, she and her children lost everything because the vast majority of women could not own property and had no other means of wealth in their name. It was all under the name of a woman’s father, husband or brother. When women and children lost the male figure that provided for them they were in danger of poverty and destitution. James wanted this church, and our church, to remember that God who is our Father in heaven is father to the fatherless. Who today is considered the “Fatherless?” Whose voices are not being heard so much so that they’re crying out to be heard? Even if it’s in ways we may not agree with, why are they crying out to be heard? For a few decades churches across denominational lines have either identified themselves as being all about social justice or concentrating on discipleship – such as helping people to cultivate a deep prayer life, relationships with each other through small groups, etc. What many churches are realizing today is that why is this an either/or? We need to be both and this passage from James supports this.  We need to spend time to make sure God’s word is not just planted, but cultivated to ensure that it is deeply rooted within us. To spend time not just reading, but reflecting on God’s word. To spend time in prayer on our own and with one another. It is then that we will have what it takes to love each other well and care for the fatherless among us. This is because we are loving others out of the love Christ has for all of us. Something that is not found in us, but found only in Jesus Christ.