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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Do. Be. Do. Be. Do

James 2:1-17
Do. Be. Do. Be. Do.
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, September 10, 2006

For Protestants, particularly those of us descended from the traditions of Martin Luther and John Calvin, the book of James has always been a problem. Luther hated it, and wished he could tear it out of his Bible. Mainly because of the final verse in our reading today, Chapter 2, verse 17. “Faith without works is dead.” The Apostle continues the argument in verse 18. “But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' OK, says the Apostle. Then, “show me your faith apart from your works.” Well, I'm waiting. Show me that faith. Oh, having trouble? Well, then, he concludes, “I by my works will show you my faith.” The implied question for us readers is, which way, would you think, is easier? Showing the faith of your heart or showing the works of your hands? In the words of the expensive tennis shoe people, “Just Do It.” Just do.

Well, Martin Luther – who had done a lot of good works – hated this argument. Because he had come to the realization that no amount of good works could earn you salvation. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, would say that no matter how high we lifted ourselves, we're still just “worms” under God's feet. It's not good to argue with Luther and Calvin. Salvation is a gift from God. Period. Faith itself is a gift. You can't earn God's favor. It just is. God loves you, like it or not. If you have to prove it, you don't understand. Just be.

But on the other hand, there's a very practical, down-to-earth side to the writings of the Apostle James. And he's not alone in the Bible. “If,” wrote the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” As James said, you can't see poor people with no clothes and no food and simply say, “I'll pray for you.” You have to put your love and faith into action before it adds up to anything. Just do.

Just do. Just be. Just do. Just be. Do. Be. Do. Be. Do. Said the great theologian, Frank Sinatra. A man who could do just about anything he wanted, AND kick back and enjoy the suave pleasure of just being Frank Sinatra. What about you? Are you more defined by what you do, or by who you be? Do your faith and your works walk hand-in-hand? Or is what you believe disconnected from what you do? Ol' Blue Eyes probably wasn't intending his words so theologically, but he did shed some light on scripture. When it comes to faith, you can't sing a “be” without a “do.” And you can't have a “do” without a “be.” One just leads to the other. Do. Be. Do. Be. Do.


We're ordaining and installing elders today. Anyone who's ever served on a church Session will tell you, you can't just be an elder without a pretty fair amount of doing, too. Elders chair committees. They lead programs. They make sure that the church is doing what it says it believes, that we're all practicing what we preach.

We're starting a new year of Sunday School and Youth Groups today. We're kick-starting Scott (which normally only Rhonda gets to do), and restarting the Choirs. Anyone who's ever been a Sunday School or Youth Group leader will tell you, you can't just be a teacher without a heck of a lot of doing. Usually more than the kids. You can't just be a member of the Choir without doing a lot of singing, praying, practicing (and cutting up). Especially if you're a Bass. It's hard to tell what that group is going to do, be, do. Ideally, everyone who comes through the doors of the church is made to be welcome, but also called to do some kind of ministry on behalf of Jesus Christ. God calls all of us to show our faith AND our good works. We're all called to preach and to practice, each in our own ways. You may not be called to sing in the choir, but you might be called to appreciate the inspiration of good music. They do; you be. Some other time, some other way, you'll do. And they'll be – be the recipients of your good works. God may not be calling you to be Billy Graham. You don't have to be some giant of faith to just sit down and pray with somebody. God might be calling you to cook supper for people who've suffered a death in the family. You don't have to be the Emiril of casseroles to care for someone in need. When your faith and your good works are in sync, you're a preaching, witnessing, singing ambassador of God. Your faith is alive. It might not be the best or the strongest, but it's alive. That's what the Bible requires of us. Alive is enough. Alive is integrity -- integrity of word and deed. Whatever we do, whatever you do in this coming year, do it with the integrity of a living faith... and you'll be, the kind of person God wants you to be. And that'll do.


“Strangers In the Night,” was the song with Sinatra's famous line of, “Do-Be-Do.” It's at the very end of the song. When you listen to the record, it kind of sounds as though Frank knew he needed to sing a little more, but wasn't sure what, so he improvised. And that little throwaway has become part of music history. The church is called to be a community, not of strangers, but of friends. Friends whose work and whose faith shines in the light of day. The church, in some places, by standards of society, might look like a group of throwaway people. Jesus' original followers, for example, weren't known for their status or education. They weren't known for their great words or miraculous works, although they accomplished both. The men and women who followed Jesus were known mainly because they followed Jesus. They followed. And after Jesus' death and resurrection, when they were called on to form the early church, they improvised. They knew they needed to sing a little more, but they weren't sure exactly what, so they kept on doing and being what Jesus had taught them to.

Nearly 2000 years later, we're the beneficiaries of their doing and being. Sometimes we recite the words exactly the way they taught us. For instance, we read the words of scripture just as they've been handed down to us. And sometimes we improvise. Because it has been 2000 years, and a different world calls for different kinds of doing and being. Like good jazz singers, we're each called upon to sing the words of our faith with our own unique style. Maybe that means singing. And maybe that means sweeping the floors. Maybe it means something else that nobody has ever tried. That's the thing: when you're being a follower of Jesus Christ, there's no telling what you'll do.

Giving Martin Luther and John Calvin their due, the good news is that your salvation is God's business. And there's no way you could ever earn eternal life. No amount of good works can ever save you. But, as the Apostle James might say, your good works won't hurt you, either. And when done in the spirit of Christ, your good works will help the world. When done in the spirit of Christ, your good deeds will help your household, your community. They will help you. When you're hand in hand with the spirit of Christ, when your faith and your works are hitting on all cylinders, you will become a smooth-operating crooner for Christ. You will do. And you will be. You will do-be-do-be and do again, to the rhythms of God almighty.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Time to...

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 + Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
September 3, 2006

Labor Day weekend. It’s the time we citizens celebrate the contribution of organized labor and the rights of workers in the United States.

Yeah, right.

In Knoxville, Tennessee, the holiday weekend has one purpose this year, and we all know it has nothing to do with working. This weekend is about playing. Playing football. Playing tailgating – although technically some of us take that too seriously to call it play. Playing at the sale racks at the mall – but again, that’s less “play” and more of a full contact sport. Playing at Boomsday, watching the fireworks, grilling out. Labor day is a weekend to loosen up, and NOT to think about labor. It’s summer’s last time of lightness. So, wear the white shoes one last time before next Easter. Labor day is time to play.

Ecclesiastes tells us that for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. A time for work and a time for play. God has made everything suitable for its time. But after this beautiful poem, the writer asks, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” And then, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; “moreover it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” With the words of Ecclesiastes playing in the background, Labor Day takes on religious significance. You see, we aren’t intended to slave away, day after day, without joy, and without a balance of time. Time to work, sure, but also time to enjoy what we’re working for. It’s God’s gift that our labor, whatever it might be, isn’t just an end in itself. God gives purpose to our days. But weekends (such as this) dedicated to play, are God’s gift, too.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Whenever I hear that, I think of Jack Nicholson in, “The Shining,” typing reams and reams of this one sentence as his mind unravels. If you ever want a testimony to why you shouldn’t lock yourself into your work, go rent that movie. Especially if you’re the caretaker of a haunted motel. But all work and no play does more than make us dull boys and girls. God has created a variety of time for our lives. All work and no play knocks us out of step. Instead of the poetry of “a time for this and a time for that,” life becomes “a time for work.” And a time for work. And a time for more work. Time to sleep? Maybe. Time to eat? In the car. Time for watching the kids grow up? The world wants us to march along in lockstep; God wants us to waltz. We play the same song day after day. We trip over the rhythms of God’s design.

Keeping step with the rhythms of God’s design isn’t easy. When you look at the list in Ecclesiastes, there’s a lot of stuff we’re supposed to have time for. A time to be born and a time to die – well, those pretty much take care of themselves. But then there’s planting and reaping, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, seeking and losing. (By the way, the Bible got that one backwards. There’s a time for losing, and THEN a time for seeking. Losing takes so little time. Seeking time gets longer every year.) There’s a time for keeping, tearing, sewing, killing, healing, embracing, loving, hating… and throwing away stones. If variety is the spice of life, God intends our lives to be anything but flavorless and dull. But again, what’s written in Ecclesiastes is poetry, not a literal to-do list. If you make it through the day without killing anyone or throwing stones at somebody, I think God would be OK with that. But to live your life as a poetic act takes conscious effort.

I get simultaneously disgusted and amused when I hear myself saying, “I need to make time for that.” Or, “Let’s carve out some time to do that.” As if I have the power to create even a second of time. What I’m really saying when I say silly stuff like that is, “I need to spend less time doing something else.” Now, most of us like to think everything we do is pretty darned important. If it wasn’t important, we wouldn’t spend so much time doing it. So trying to find something to cut out or cut down on isn’t easy. Especially if that something pays the bills. Keeping step with the poetry of God’s design gets harder every year, whether you work inside or outside the home, whether you’re retired, or even if you’re a kid trying to juggle homework, class time and the forty-leven extracurricular activities now required by law. But then, we wouldn’t expect living by God’s design to be as easy as letting the world suck the life out of us. It takes effort to learn God’s dance steps. Today’s scripture says that God wants us to enjoy, to eat and drink and take pleasure in (and from) our toil.

Simon and Garfunkle (and I know some of you have no idea who they are) told us, “Slow down; you move too fast. You got to make the morning last.” Ah, youth. I hope everyone’s feeling groovy now. Art and Paul sang that song at least one, maybe two generations ago, depending on how you count. 1966. In 2006, people grumble because it takes so long to download songs. Many, many generations ago, around 26 AD, in the land of Israel, getting people to slow down and stop moving too fast was a problem, too. We envision the lives of people in Jesus’ day being simple and easy. But people are people. Back then, they probably complained about the long lines at the watering hole and camels that wouldn’t start and kids who took too long getting dressed. The rabbis and priests realized there was a huge disconnect between peoples’ lives on the Sabbath and the other six days of the week. The people were just too busy. They forgot about God and charged off doing their own things just as much as we do. So the rabbis came up with a solution. If people are too busy doing other stuff to think about God, make the other stuff holy, so you have to think about God. And so the rabbis came up with huge numbers of laws about how to wash your pots and pans, how to do this and how to do that. It’s not a bad idea.

When you’re preparing food, do you really think about all it involves? If the food we eat is a gift from the earth, and if the earth is a gift from God, and if the family you’re cooking supper for is made up of children of God – then, yes, washing your pots and pans can be a religious act. Peeling the skin off a chicken can be a yucky act of prayer. Chopping an onion can be an emotional experience. Apply the laws of cleanliness to all of life and simply washing your hands brings you closer to God. Not a bad idea at all. If the laws can teach you to dance to God’s rhythms, then good. But – if the rabbis start demanding you march in lockstep to their rules, if you’re not allowed to be friends with people who don’t follow the same rules, then something’s wrong. The holiness of the cleanliness laws has been adulterated into just another set of rules and pressures that keep people from slowing down and feeling groovy.

The rabbis – the Pharisees – noticed that Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands (the right way) before they ate. These were hungry guys who lived in tents. They may not have washed their hands at all. The Pharisees blew their whistles and threw a flag and asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” It’s hard for us to understand, but this was a really big deal. The Pharisees saw the disciples as breaking step with the march of tradition. But more, the disciples were letting the ways of the world pollute their faith, literally. The disciples ate with dirty hands, that had touched dirty utensils, patted dirty camels, handled dirty money, maybe even touched dirty people. This was a religious crisis.

Jesus saw a teaching moment, and broke into a sermon. He called the crowd together and said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Evil intentions are what keep people away from God. It’s not dirty hands that defile us, but dirty hearts, dirty minds, dirty intentions. Jesus escalates the religious crisis instead of calming it.

Time. The beat of time. This past week, in so many news retrospectives on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, people were talking a lot about time. I saw an interview with one old, New Orleans musician, who talked about how Katrina just knocked out all the rhythms of life. Getting water, getting groceries, cleaning muck out of your home or your business – these are what’s important now. All the other stuff is lost in time. I think what Jesus was talking about – what the Pharisees were trying to make people do – what Ecclesiastes preached about – was cleaning the muck out of your life. It’s not that there isn’t enough time. It’s that we let our time become so adulterated, so mucked-up, that even the good things get lost in the storm. Instead of a time to sew and a time to reap, a time to laugh and a time to cry, all our time gets so mixed up together that we’re not consciously doing anything. We’re trying to juggle everything. Multitasking. And it doesn’t work. It’s a religious crisis. And it’s escalating in a bad way. If you’re trying to move to God’s rhythms, you can’t march, waltz, tango, Watusi, and Hustle all at the same time. God has set up the world so there’s a time to march, and a time to waltz, and even a time to do The Hustle, Lord help us. The problem isn’t that we don’t slow down we move too fast; the problem is that we’re no longer conscious of how cleaning the pots and pans might be a religious act. Planting a garden might be a faithful prayer. Driving to soccer practice might be a family value. The times of our lives might be holy, if we focus our hearts and minds on the holiness of our time.

Whether it’s in your mind or in print, you probably have a list of things you have to do, beginning this afternoon, and running through the week to come. How are these things holy? What do they contribute to your life with God? Whether it’s preparing a meal or writing a report, can these things, one at a time, bring you into richer harmony with God? Can they help you dance to God’s rhythms? Growing closer to God takes time. Whatever you have to do in the next twenty-four hours, do it consciously on behalf of God. Wash your hands, your heart, and your mind clean. Not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. So that even if your hands are dirty, what you put your hands to will preach God. All the time. Working. Playing. Even doing nothing at all. Your time is a holy gift. Make how you spend your time holy, too.