Sermon 9-18-2016Streams of Living Water; Holiness

James 3:11-18, Steven Green, The Dispatch, Ocean City, MD.

Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion – Holy Obedience, Harper & Row.


“Parenting is a humbling experience… I have always thought two of my virtues were patience and organization.  Without question, parenting has tested both and there are days now when I feel like the most impatient person on the planet as well as the most disorganized.  First up comes patience. I can take a lot of nonsense and keep on ticking without losing my cool. I try to bring a balanced and reasoned approach to just about everything in life. Most of the time I’m successful with it, but there are times when I get rattled and lose it.


Nothing gets under my skin more and sometimes causes me to do or say things out of character than when my children act in a way that’s inconsistent with the values we work so hard to try and instill in them. It makes me feel like a failure and leads to frustration because I get impatient over the bad behavior. It’s one thing to have a slipup and a case of poor judgment, but it’s another thing altogether when it’s a repetitive misbehavior and involves signs of disrespect.  My kids have been guilty of these sorts of things on several occasions. The low points are when they [all] have bad days. The good news is they are young and are works in progress...”


That’s just part of an article written by Steven Green, a reporter for The Dispatch in Ocean City, Maryland.  The article, “Patient, Organized Virtues being put to the test Daily”, speaks of very familiar phenomena.  Real life.  Choosing best practices, good choices, proper alternatives – whether you’re that parent or the child, for that matter.


Good behavior – a virtuous life – a holy, healthy life – doesn’t come out of a rule book.  It doesn’t come off a chart.  It doesn’t even come from stone tablets.  A life of holiness or wholeness (these words originate from the same root) comes from a choice to live a whole, full, and devoted life – a life that you understand and long for. 


When I began teaching again after an 11-year hiatus, one of the first things I did was to put up my list of classroom rules.  Rule #1: ‘Be kind to others.’  What I didn’t know, in this inner-city school, was that the kids had no idea what kindness was.  They didn’t live in a kind world.  The playground was a battlefield.  Their homes were barracks – often empty.  It took about a week, until Rule #1 became ‘Eyes Front Please’.  And we didn’t just read the rule – we practiced it.   


The teacher before me had managed the class by bribing them.  Cans of soda pop were handed out to the winners of good behavior – my kids got one sticker for the whole class’s success together, and eventually earned music parties where they could choose what they wanted to play or sing.  Following the rules held an intrinsic value, and led to honoring each other, and the experience of working and learning together.


When God gave the children of Israel the 10 Commandments, they were meant for life and security – not for restraint and oppression.  When you’ve told your child, “Don’t run into the street,” it’s not said with cruelty.  When God says “Thou shalt not…,” God is not speaking out of cruelty, but out of love.  It just doesn’t sound like it!  But if you’re wandering in a desert, having just escaped after hundreds of years of slavery, with cruel masters telling you what to do every moment of the day, you do not know how to govern yourselves, and you need someone who loves you, to clearly guide you in words that you can understand.  The first four commandments, about putting God first, no idols, God’s name – “Thou shalt nots” – were later summed up by Jesus when he reiterated them by saying, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.’  The last six commandments, about killing, stealing, lying, cheating – “Thou shalt nots” - became ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ when Jesus spoke them.


If you understand God’s rules, if you live into the value of their virtues, they bring life.  And that life is clearly seen and known by everyone around you.  This is what is so unique and wonderful about living life as a Quaker – as a Friend.  We don’t profess our faith – we possess it.  We don’t carry around a rule book – even our Faith and Practice.  We refer to it, we use it… in England they have multiple copies spread around their Meeting Rooms – particularly the section of Advices and Queries.  At our best, we live a life centered in our experience of God’s presence, our continued seeking and the precious revelations we discover each day through God’s Holy Spirit, through sacred scripture, through our encounters with God’s children and creation…  we are blessed and surrounded with an understanding given by Godself to us of who God is.  And, most importantly, we are afforded the privilege of sharing that in Meeting, where our whole and holy lives can be tested, nurtured, corrected, shaped, challenged, freed by one another!


This is a gift, Friends!  There are many houses of worship who worship themselves, their beliefs, their traditions, their buildings, their music… the intention of attention to God and the Spirit was lost, long ago.  The words are there, but they are not spiritually centered.  Care and concern for the health and wholeness of their worship is gone.


All of this is a choice!  We don’t have to think.  We don’t have to listen.  We don’t have to engage.  We, like so many pundits these days, can allow others to tell us what to think.  We can let others evaluate virtue.  We, as James declares can decide if olives are growing from fig trees, or figs from grapevines.  “Who is wise and understanding among you?  Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”  Think about our candidates for the presidency… is their wisdom first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruit, without a trace of hypocrisy?  Lord, help us!  But then, we must ask, is OUR wisdom first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruit, without a trace of hypocrisy?  We cannot expect from others what we do not expect in ourselves! 


God calls us to a virtuous life – a whole and holy life.  But we must choose it.  And what exactly, does that mean?  For that, I turn to my good friend, Thomas Kelly and excerpts from his essay, ‘Holy Obedience’: “Meister Eckhart wrote: "There are plenty to follow our Lord half-way, but not the other half. They will give up possessions, friends and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves. It is just this astonishing life which is willing to follow Him the other half, sincerely to disown itself, this life which intends complete obedience, without any reservations, that I would propose to you in all humility, in all boldness, in all seriousness. I mean this literally, utterly, completely, and I mean it for you and for me—commit your lives in unreserved obedience to Him…


This is something wholly different from mild, conventional religion which, with respectable skirts held back by dainty fingers, anxiously tries to fish the world out of the mudhole of its own selfishness. Our churches, our meeting houses are full of such respectable and amiable people. We have plenty of Quakers to follow God the first half of the way. Many of us have become as mildly and as conventionally religious as were the church folk of three centuries ago, against whose mildness and mediocrity and passionlessness George Fox and his followers flung themselves with all the passion of a glorious and a new discovery and with all the energy of dedicated lives. In some, says William James, religion exists as a dull habit, in others as an acute fever. Religion as a dull habit is not that for which Christ lived and died…”


How do we move to this kind of passion?  To this ‘holy obedience’ Kelly talks about?  Meditation, reading journals and biographies of persons of faith who’ve gone before are some ideas, and being present to openings of the Spirit that will come.  Another thing – start where we are.  Obey now.  He says, ‘Use what little obedience you are capable of!”  I love that! And then – if we slip up and forget God and ‘assert our old proud selves’, we’re not to spend too much time in regret, but just begin again.  Obey now.


Do we want to live virtuous lives?  Do we want to live in wholeness – in holiness?  Do we ‘follow the rules’, or do we live out the profession of our lives centered in God?  Let us consider these queries, as we enter into silent waiting worship this morning.