Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: James 1:17-27
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
It’s good to be back and I want to thank again the amazing preachers who shared the message while I was away, Rev. Debbie Weatherspoon, Akesa Fakava, Dr. Randall Miller and Rev. Angela Brown. I was blessed in hearing their message as I know you were, too. One of my big plans for renewal leave was to read and read and read. I didn’t get quite as much reading done as I imagined I would, but I did notice something interesting about books that are popular right now. Many seem to fall into two primary categories. Any guesses about what those are? Well, the first is dystopian stories. There are a lot of popular books right now that offer a sobering and concerning vision of our future. They take the effects of climate change, social division, lawlessness and space exploration to extreme and devastating conclusions. They serve as sobering cautionary tales and its not hard to see why some writers are processing what they see today and their fear by drawing this line into the future. The other category is that of the unlived life where the main character, through some plot device, is allowed to undo regretted choices or live out alternative paths. I noticed there’s even a new television series beginning this fall called “Ordinary Joe” that presents three parallel lives of the main character stemming from different choices made at a significant turning point in his life. I think all of us have probably spent some time thinking about the path not taken.
And though it might seem that these two types of narratives—the dystopian story and the parallel reality—are distinct and unconnected, it seems to me they are connected. Both of these kinds of stories stem from the existence and impact of human choice. In theology, we call that God’s good gift of free will. In God’s immense power, God has shared with us the power to co-create the world we live in. Our choices matter and have impact.
Another book I read, maybe my favorite, was called The Worst Hard Times. It’s a chronicle of the Dirty Thirties, also known as the Dust Bowl of western Kansas and Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle and eastern Colorado. And while there were certainly natural dimensions to the disaster, underneath the devastation were human choices based on misunderstandings of the land and supremacies that devalued centuries of Native American wisdom. Though my family comes from eastern Kansas and Oklahoma, they were close enough that the Dust Bowl was a present reality for them through those years. I was drawn to this history both for those personal reasons and because it is a story of how a broad group of people got through a devastating and unprecedented and seemingly uncontrollable time. It has some interesting advice for what we are living through now in this lingering pandemic with fires raging in our state.
One of the prevailing narratives about the Dust Bowl is that the people left. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wraths immortalized the Okie who came West to California, painting a picture of a deserted mid-continent wasteland that became devoid of population. But the truth is that about three-fourths of the people of that region did not leave and those who did leave didn’t travel far but went to neighboring states. Only an estimated 10% of migrants to California in the thirties came from the Dust Bowl region. But one has to ask, was this truly an exercise of free will or was it a result of things being so desperate that folks couldn’t even move? Why did they stay? What does free will mean in this situation?
Our scripture today from the book of James begins like this, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming down from God, the parent of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. God chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all God created.” The first thing we need to hear in these lines is that God is the giver of gifts, and that every good gift we have is from God. Free will, the power to choose is one of those gifts. And second, God also possesses the power to choose. God chose to create us, and God chose to give us free will. When you think about it, that’s an awful lot hanging in the balance: God’s choice to create us, God’s choice to give us free will, our own choices that are a result of the good gift of free will. When we really think about the number of things we influence and impact with our choices, it can be overwhelming, devastating, even paralyzing. What if our choices do harm out of our ignorance, or our selfishness, or weakness?
I think the consciousness of all that we can influence is often too much for us to hold. And so we deny or conveniently fail to acknowledge all that is within our choice. We say it’s beyond our control. Or we project our fears onto a grand narrative. Dystopian stories and narratives of parallel realities are ways to grapple with the magnitude of what power we as human beings truly do have. Now I do not mean to suggest that within history or within current reality we all have equal choices or equal power within structural systems influenced by race and gender and sexual orientation and poverty and access and a whole host of other factors that impact the options available to each us within those structural systems. Nor do I mean to suggest that our power comes anywhere close to God’s power. I mean, who among us who had the choice to keep all power or share it with an unpredictable and fallible populace would do so? But God did, because God’s relationship with us is fueled by the power of God’s own faith and trust in humanity. What I do want us to be in touch with is what James was asking us to reckon with in the choices we make to be, as he puts it, “not just hearers of the word who deceive themselves but doers also.”
Though some scholars and theologians have criticized James’ writing for focusing too much on the responsibility of a Christian to act as opposed to the necessity for a Christian to believe, James “real talk” about what it means to have the gift of free will is a needed treatise in a time when the magnitude of the world’s challenges, our challenges, may have gotten us out of touch with the choices we do have to impact those realities.
Hear these further words from James from today’s scripture, “My siblings, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry… Take care of the widows and orphans in their distress, and do not be torn down by the world.” The people who lived through the Dust Bowl, those who stayed, whether through an unwillingness to give up on that particular part of the land or through a calculation that leaving was not an option, still had choices. They chose to describe themselves as “tomorrow people,” meaning that no matter how bad today was, they believed they could persevere. They had choices about how they interacted with each other, how they maintained honest relationship with God-which surely included more of the lament of the Psalmist crying, “How long, O Lord, how long?”-- and how they described their reality.
One of the more colorful characters of the time was the editor of the newspaper in Dalhart, Texas, a man named John McCarty. He recognized that he had a choice in the headlines he printed: he could focus on the disaster or he could focus on something to give people a sense of awe and hope. He printed headlines that wondered at the power of nature, and the courage and resilience of the people.
We can shift the headlines around us too. Last year, a woman shared in an online forum her experience of meeting an 87-year-old who talked of living through polio, diphtheria, Vietnam protests and yet was still enchanted with life.
She said, “He seemed surprised when I said that 2020 must be especially challenging for him. ‘No,’ he said slowly, looking me straight in the eyes. ‘I learned a long time ago to not see the world through the printed headlines, I see the world through the people that surround me. I see the world with the realization that we love big. Therefore, I just choose to write my own headlines.’” Then he gave her some of his examples: “Husband loves wife today.“ “Family drops everything to come to Grandma’s bedside.”
“He patted my hand,” she said, “and looked at me and said, ‘Old man makes new friend.’”
“His words collided with my worries,” she said, “freeing them from the tether I had been holding tight. They floated away. I was left with a renewed spirit. My headline now reads ‘Woman overwhelmed by the spirit of kindness and the reminder that our capacity to love is never-ending.’”
As we head back into another academic and church year, this one largely in person, there are many unknowns. There are certainly examples around of us of the ways in which persons are using that free will in ways that does harm, but we always have the option to choose differently. What we do know is that we have free will to keep trying to be doers of the word and not merely hearers. For Wesleyans, free will must always be understood alongside grace. Grace surrounds us, precedes us and is constantly exerting influence on us to bring into fruition with God God’s vision for the world. It’s our job to keep staying open to that grace and help others be open to it, too.
As you go out from this place today, I want to encourage and challenge you to change your headlines. You can start at the coffee hour. Last night Elizabeth and I went out to dinner and practiced changing our headlines. It’s harder than you might think. What news are you sharing? Is it Good News?
The people of the Dust Bowl called themselves “tomorrow people.” They believed that next year would be better than this year. Some might call that naïve optimism. But I prefer a different headline. In proclaiming themselves, “Tomorrow People,” maybe they were really saying, “we believe that the world is a good place, in spite of what might seem like evidence to the contrary. We believe in a God who wills our wholeness, our health, our well-being. We are trying to make choices that support that call of God. In spite of death-dealing blows, we believe in life.”
Isn’t that the meaning of resurrection? Aren’t we also called to be Tomorrow People? To keep moving into the future God calls us into? The good gifts of a benevolent God invite us to co-create a new heaven and a new earth. May it be so. And that, my friends, is Good News. Amen.
Order of Service
The Community Gathers...
Rev. Jerry Asheim
Caroline Lee, viola
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Opening Music: "This is the Day the Lord Has Made"
Rev. Jerry Asheim, Cathryn Bruno, Judy Kriege
To Hear the Word...
Scripture Reading: James 1: 17-27
*Passing the Peace
You are invited to turn to the people around you and bow to each other as a sign of graceful greetings this day.
Anthem: "Teach Your Children" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Erin Adachi-Kriege, Judy Kriege, Travis Pratt, Alice Templeton
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
To Respond and Renew Commitment...
*Hymn of Response: "Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" - The Faith We Sing #2193
Prayers of the People:
Leader: Loving God, People: We lift our prayers to you.
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The Prayer Jesus Taught (The Lord's Prayer )
Our Creator (Father/Mother), who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom (kin-dom) come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom (kin-dom), and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
Offering Our Resources and our Energy
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Offertory: "Deep River"
Charles Lynch, soloist
Praise be to God, who breathes the breath of life. Praise to the Christ who sets us free. Praise the Spirit whose wind and fire give power to move and light to see. As it was before the world began, is here and now and evermore. Alleluia! Praise the three-in-one whom we worship and adore.
Prayer of Dedication
To Go Forth with Love and Compassion
*Closing Hymn: "Praise the Source of Faith and Learning" - The Faith We Sing #2004
Postlude: "Lift High the Cross"
***Special Thanks To:
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking Worship Leaders: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Cathryn Bruno, Susan Jardin, Mikko Jokela, Judy Kriege, Caroline Lee, Charles Lynch, Erin Adachi-Kriege, Travis Pratt, Alice Templeton Ushers: Glenn Eagleson & Becky Wheat | Coffee on the front lawn: Chris Baetge Audio engineer: Tom McClure | Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey |Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Credits: Prayers ©2021 enfleshed. Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.