Loving the World

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at Christ Church Seikokai, San Francisco, on August 31, 2015.
“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  James 1:27

I thought of trying a little experiment this morning but my Japanese isn’t good enough. What I wanted to do was to ask the reader of the second lesson to add one phrase at the end.  So in English it would have ended this way: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world and to stand on your head for sixty minutes every day before breakfast.  The Word of the Lord.”

I wonder whether anyone would have noticed.  What would the reaction have been? I probably should have tried it because now I’ll never know. I hope you are thinking: “That’s completely ridiculous.” But, you know, the lesson ended anyway with a completely ridiculous statement and no one reacted at all, not a peep! “Pure religion is . . .to keep yourself unspotted by the world.”  Let me put it this way: “Every good member of the church must avoid being influenced in any way by the world around us.” That is what the reading said and there’s no way you can do it.

Not that Christians haven’t tried. Very early on in the history of the church men and women went off into the desert and established themselves sometimes in solitary cells and sometimes in isolated communities. Of course, there weren’t any fatherless and widowed to visit out there, but neither could the world get them stained. I really don’t know how you can keep yourself unstained by the world except by going off into the desert – I think there’s some available down around Palm Springs. And I’ll bet every one of us has days sahara_desertwhen we would like to give it a try, but there’s just no way we can do it. We’ve got jobs to do, bills to pay, and the fact is, most of us most of the time prefer it that way.  We do want to serve God, yes, we do: but here, where we are, not in the desert.  And that means we can’t help getting stained.

So what is James really trying to say?  Is the world really that dangerous? Most of us, I think, have a pretty good relationship with the world. And why not?  It is God’s world, after all. There’s a very familiar verse from John’s Gospel that says: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son . . .” If God loved the world, why should we avoid it like the plague? How can you reconcile James and John? Well, the fact is we’re talking in two different ways: one about the world God made and one about the world human beings have changed. They’re not the same world.  Christians have a funny tendency to forget the creation story in Genesis. But again and again in that story we hear how God made the light and the earth and the stars and animals and human life.  Seven times in that chapter we hear that God saw what had been made “and it was good.” The seventh time, in fact, when it’s all finished, we’re told that God saw that it was “very good.” So it’s not surprising that the Gospel of John should tell us that “God so loved the world” that God came into that world to save it.  It is God’s world.  Why wouldn’t God love it and try to save it?

But save it from what?  From us, that’s who! From us and from evil.  I was talking last week about the problem we have with the evil powers that corrupt us and last week’s reading described  the power of evil as “the ruler of this world.” The Gospel of John uses the same language. They look at the world and they see a battlefield with the forces of good and the forces of evil locked in a cosmic struggle. Sometimes it’s as obvious as the Middle East where Israelis and Palestinians both seem to be dominated by the power of evil and Iraq, where whatever good intentions there are are paving the road to hell. Sometimes it’s a lot less obvious, like the decisions we make about spending our money. How do we weigh the constant appeals to support this charity and that versus the decision to repaint the house this year or next or the decision to take a well-earned break and go out for dinner?  I looked at alternate translations of that verse from James and they don’t help. One says “not soiled and dirtied by contacts with the world.”  Another says, “Do not let the world make you evil.” “The world” still comes off as the bad guy. And then what happens is that we identify whoever or whatever we don’t like or can get along without as “the world.”

Christians have been good at that over the centuries.  First it was the Roman Empire and sometimes it was luxuries, it’s been card games and dancing and alcohol and maybe the Democratic Party – or the Republicans.  But always someone else.  But the world is us; not someone else; we’re part of it.  And it was a good world until we misused it and – here’s the essence of it –  I think the world was good until we began treating it as if we were God and it all belonged to us.

Notice that John says “God loved the world.”  So if we love the world we’re acting like God and that’s good. But love is not possession.  That’s the mistake we so often make. Love is giving, not controlling.  If more people knew that there’d be less divorce and a lot less unhappiness.  Love is giving, not controlling.  In the battle between good and evil, God gives and loves but leaves us free.  The power of evil is always taking and trying to control. To be like God is to love the world  and to give ourselves to others, but never to try to control.

We see how that works out most easily in the problem of managing money. Money is power, the ability to do things, control things. We all want just a bit more than we have, don’t we? and then a little bit more than that, but the result is that money controls us and the more we try to control it the more it rules our lives.  The more we try to control it, the more evil rules our lives. The more we try to control our finances, the more we become selfish and grasping and a lot less nice to be around. And the solution is not to give it all away.  You know, we often hear the Bible misquoted and told that “money is the root of all evil.”  That’s not what it says. It says that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Love God and then we can use money to serve God.

Using money to serve God is called stewardship, and it’s not just something that happens in the fall when the church asks for your pledge of support. It’s a year-round way of living that puts God first and exercises stewardship of all God’s gifts. Love God.  Love God’s world. But don’t try to control it. You can’t control God and you shouldn’t try to control God’s world.  Whenever we try, that’s when things get out of hand and the world does more than just stain us, it twists us and drags us down and controls us. The world controls us. And that’s the danger.

There’s so much in the world that’s good and beautiful and desirable.  Of course it is.  God made it. Even Satan loves it.  But Satan is out there trying to control it and as we read last week has pretty much succeeded so that almost everywhere we look there’s something so attractive we just have to have it – and then we’re lost. Television’s a good thing, but don’t get sucked in.  Don’t let it control your life. Food is wonderful, but it can destroy us. How much time and effort do people expend trying to get control of their weight because they lost control of food. Money is useful, but it’s not the reason for our existence. ?????????????????????????????????????????Books, travel, clothes, shopping, all good things – but all dangerous to our health, especially our spiritual health, because we so easily get obsessed with them and let them draw us away from God. If you don’t have time for prayer, if you don’t have time for Bible study, if there are Sundays you can’t get to church, those are warning signs: watch out.  Who’s in charge? Are you letting the world control you? It doesn’t need to be that way.

There’s a battle going on and all too often the other side is winning but this battle is not one we watch on the evening news it’s one that’s decided in your own life and mine every day in the decisions we make and the priorities we set. First love God, then love God’s world, but love it by giving, not trying to control.  And when you see those stains showing up, don’t wait until it’s too late and you can’t get free. Just say No. And come back to the God who loves you and who will give you freely more than you ever imagined.

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