Rocherty UMC September 25th, 2022
“A Change of Heart” 
James 4:1-10

 

            Can you believe it? Here we are in fall already. It almost seems like yesterday that we were worrying about the heat and humidity and just the other day I was wondering if I should kick on the heat in the morning.  And with the change in seasons, we are gearing up for a stretch of holidays that most of us really enjoy. Some of us will prepare goodies for the little ghosts and goblins that will be coming around the neighborhood at Halloween. Still others will be thinking about how they might decorate for Christmas and what they might buy for the special people in their lives this year.
            But still others of us might be preparing for a special meal we have in -November. Turkey, filling, mashed potatoes, and corn dressed with lots of “love”—I mean, butter…Well, in order to prepare for this meal we’ve got to go to the store.
Let me tell you a story of two people on a mission. Robert is busy buying the last few ingredients for the dinner, he ran out of celery and butter. Who can have filling without celery and who can have mashed potatoes without butter? Amy has an entire house load of family that came in from out of state. She and her husband have been run ragged trying to take care of them and all their needs. So far, they’ve eaten them out of house and home, so she has to frantically make a trip to the store as well. She needs her usual household groceries and some of the things for the big meal too.
            Robert and Amy have never met. And each one is like a person possessed. They are on a mission. They need to get in. Get out. No time for pleasantries people, this is war! We all know that type of thinking, don’t we? Time pressure chips away at us. The stakes are high, and we’ve got to stay focused. We become “task oriented” rather than “people oriented.” No time for politeness, it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves!
            Well. Here stands Robert and what lay in front of him? Ah! The last two packs of butter in the place! “Phew! I can’t believe my luck. I’m just in the nick of time.” And there at the fresh vegetables, Amy has found the last two bundles of celery. “What good fortune to get here right on time. Now I won’t have to hear Aunt Esther gripe about not having enough celery in my filling,” she says to herself.
            But what happens next is—a little disconcerting. Amy has her celery and then she heads to the dairy case for her butter. And Robert heads to the fresh vegetables looking for celery. Alas! They both find themselves fresh out of luck! It seems like someone has cleaned the place right out of what they need. Each of them are beginning to think of ways to explain the situation to waiting families back home as they march to the registers to check out.
            And as it happens, both Robert and Amy end up in the same line. Amy got there first. Another piece of good fortune for her! And then comes along Robert…he has the cart with the squeaky wheel so it was inevitable he’d be bringing up the rear. And then…commence drama in Checkout Aisle Two.
            Amy begins unloading her grocery on that oh so clean grocery belt that has had on it who knows what substances… and then he sees it. Robert shouts out, almost involuntarily, “It was YOU! YOU TOOK THE LAST CELERY!” Amy turns around. And then SHE sees it. The golden rectangles of pure churned goodness that stand between her and a kvetching family at home that won’t be happy with margarine in the potatoes.
            “Hey, wait a minute” “Who are you yelling at buster?” “It looks like YOU’RE the reason I have to use THIS in my potatoes this year” as she picks up the Country Crock and drops it with a thud. “HOW COULD YOU BE SO SELFISH” they seem to shout at one another in unison. Me, selfish? I’m just looking out for number one; don’t you know what I’m dealing with? Me, selfish, don’t you know I have a house full at home?
            And of course, the answer to these two rhetorical questions asked of Amy and Robert are “no.” Amy didn’t know what Robert was going through nor did Robert have any idea of the stress that Amy was under. All they knew is that the other one had something that they desperately wanted. How will the situation play out? What will happen? We’ll leave the story there and pick it up a little later in the message.
            The story I’m using in today’s message is something that I made up with a little inspiration from the internet. Amy and Robert aren’t real people. But the situation they got themselves into is real, right? As the Pandemic and the reaction to it has shown, people are just becoming meaner. People have lost patience with one another. Supplies have been short. Prices have gotten higher. And lines have gotten longer. Places are short staffed and the people who should be pitied instead are being pilloried. If you work or have ever worked in retail or food service, you know what I mean. Public-facing jobs like this are some of the hardest and most unappreciated jobs there are. Quarrels and conflicts abound everywhere.
            Quarrels and Conflicts. That’s what James was talking about. As a reminder, let’s review a little about James, the church community he’s writing to, and the situation they find themselves in. James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, has become a leader in the church after Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection. He’s become a mentor of sorts to the earliest Christians who had come to faith in Jesus out of the Judaism of the ancient world. These Messianic Jewish Christians have been undergoing something of a trial—both internally and externally. Externally, they are facing persecution for the faith. They are finding it hard to navigate the ancient world’s unfair system of exclusion and economic exploitation. But internally, the situation is even worse. They’re showing favoritism to the rich at the expense of the poor. The teachers they have are playing games of “one up” and sowing dissension instead of peace. And it seems that no one can control his or her tongue.
            James reminds them all throughout that the answer to their troubles, both internally and externally, is to seek the wisdom from above. To seek heavenly wisdom and not operate by the world’s standard of wisdom in which what benefits me becomes the guiding principle in my life. And in today’s passage, James prescribed the answer to the ailment. Like a doctor, gave a prescription needed to flourish in a world that grows increasingly hostile to a thriving and flourishing life of faith, hope and love. That answer is a radical change of heart: repentance and a new life in Christ.
            James’ opening, like a surgeon on a mission, is going to hit right at the heart of the matter. He says, what is the source of quarrels and conflicts among You? Is the source not your pleasures that wage war in your body’s parts? You lust and do not have, so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.
            Ouch. James is holding nothing back. Murder?! James probably doesn’t mean an actual murder that occurred. But, like Jesus said in the sermon on the mount: words of violence is the same as killing; thinking a person is worth nothing is the same as murder. How do we get there?
James tells us that the source of our troubles most often is desire. Desire for things. Desires to fulfill the pleasure centers of our brain. Notice though that he doesn’t get specific. You see, our bodies are amazing things. We’ve got this entire network of chemistry that works to keep our bodies going. And we’ve got these chemicals that work in these brains of ours to keep us on track.
            And, some of these chemicals make us feel really good. Over time, we can focus so much on the feeling good that we lose sight of the purpose of the thing that gives us the pleasurable sensation in the first place. That little chemical is called Dopamine. Every time we have a good experience, a little burst of that chemical is released. The bigger the thrill, the larger the hit. And you’ll notice I’ve switched over to very medical terms here. Dopamine is indeed a natural drug that we produce. And like many drugs, dopamine can be addictive.
            Indeed, many people who seem to do some of the most reckless things in life are what we’d colloquially call “dopamine junkies.” They need to get to the next “natural” high from pleasure to pleasure. But the trouble is, over time, the body can get used to things. We need to seek out bigger thrills to get the same feeling. So we go bigger, go bolder, get riskier, and sometimes we stray too far afield and find ourselves in danger.
            And you might here think I’m talking about things a little seedier or illicit. We often associate things like addiction with drugs, alcohol, or sexual activity. And it’s true that all of these things are very easy dopamine triggers. But there are other things that can trigger this feel-good drug. For some of us, a social interaction can give us our fix. Still others the spreading of gossip. For others it might be thrill seeking and risk taking behavior like speeding, skydiving, or some other so-called adrenaline sport. For some, it’s putting our opinions where they aren’t needed or wanted. For others, it’s manipulating people to do what we want them to do.
            I think that’s why James isn’t specific in what he points out here. He knows that the crowd he’s writing to is as mixed as the crowd I’m speaking to today. He knows that among the many people to whom he’s writing there are going to be many things that give people their dopamine highs, feed the beast of their disordered desires. Regardless of the type, he’s warning us that pursuit of our pleasures merely for the sake of our pleasures is indeed the source of the fights and conflicts that exist among us. When we get selfish, we lose the capacity to empathize with others and see through their eyes. When we look out for number one, we don’t have the mental capacity to imagine the way life might be for someone else. We can’t put ourselves in their shoes and think from their perspective.
            But then there is another problem that James points out about pleasures. He points out that the people to whom he’s writing have been so busy focusing on getting the next fix that they’ve failed to even seek out God in the matter. He says you have not because you ask not. And you don’t receive because you ask with wrong motivations. When they pray, they’re merely seeking from God what they want—not what they need—but what they need to fill up their dopamine tanks.  And God, being rich in mercy, is not going to give to them something that is going to harm them, going to break community, going to further disturb the connections of love that should exist among these people.
            But then James throws out a word that should shock us. He calls the people he is writing to adulterers! He calls them people who have been unfaithful. I thought that he wasn’t pointing out a specific sin, and here he mentions one. But when James uses the term adultery, he’s not using it in the technical sense of marital infidelity but rather in its covenant with God sense. In the Old Testament especially, the relationship between God and Israel was portrayed as a marriage. And when Israel strayed and worshipped other gods, it was often portrayed as adultery—perhaps most poignantly in the book of Hosea.
            So when James calls his hearers adulterers, he’s accusing them of turning their allegiance away from God and toward something else. And what does James say they’ve turned toward? Well, as we saw last week, what they’ve turned to is the world. And remember that this term “world” isn’t an indictment of the creation that God made. God made everything we see and declared it good. No, what James and the other New Testament authors mean by “world” is the fallen, selfish, violent, hoarding human system that exists without acknowledging the true God as the rightful ruler of the world. In short, it is society apart from God.
            And not only are James’ hearers spiritual adulterers, but they’ve become friends with the world. And in the ancient world, much like today, friendship was a big deal. To be considered a friend of someone was to be something of a chosen relationship—family you chose to associate with. And the honor and integrity of the two friends would be caught up together. The reputations of friends would be intimately linked. So James is appalled that his readers have chosen to link up with the fallen world and not with the Kingdom of God.
            Indeed, James gives us a stark choice. We can either be a friend of the world or have peace with God. We can’t have it both ways. Like the great Bob Dylan song reminds us, we’ve got to serve somebody. It might be the Devil, it might be the Lord, but we’ve got to serve somebody. For too many of us, that person we serve is US. We serve ourselves. And in doing so we stand opposed to God. James goes even further and tells us that when we act in such a way we’re actually acting as an enemy of God.
            But it doesn’t have to be this way. God doesn’t take pleasure in punishment. God does not have his finger poised above the smite key ready to strike us down for the least transgression. In fact, more often than not, God leaves us to our own devices to face the natural consequences of our actions. God gave us free will as a precious gift. It’s up to us to choose how to use it.
            But God has not left us entirely alone. No, not by a long shot. He gives us grace. Grace. That word we use but so often don’t understand. Grace is the unearned gift of God that allow you and me to have another shot at the life we should have. It’s the gift that allows us to turn from service of self and idols to serve the living and true God. Grace is what makes a change of heart possible.
            It is grace that brings us through the course of our life, and it is grace that underpins our entire process of turning towards God. It is God’s grace at work even before we know it is active that prompts us to consider our actions. It is grace that works with us to bring us in relationship with God and it is grace that works in Christians to bring them more and more into a life marked increasingly by conformity to the life of Christ.
            It’s all about grace! But there is something we must do. We have to cooperate with the grace that God gives. In our understanding as Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, we believe that grace IS resistible; we CAN fight against the good impulses that try to win us over to the right.
            But for those that choose another way, the path upwards toward God begins with humility. As James declares, quoting Proverbs, God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. To stand before God we must first admit that we aren’t all that we should be. To be humble in this way is to admit our myriad faults, the ways we fall short of the mark. It’s not debasing ourselves, but seeing ourself correctly – as God sees us – as we really are. So we confess our sins and take ownership of the consequences.
            Then we must work, keep in step with the Spirt of God who also works in and through us from the hour we first believe, to turn away from that which ensnares us. James tells us to submit to God. Draw near to God. Resist the Devil and he will flee from you. Sometimes resisting the devil is saying no to a pie. Sometimes it is saying no to a romantic gesture from someone not your spouse. Other times it might be buying only what you need and not all you want.
            This is the core of what the kind of life change we should see as Christians is all about. This is the entire concept of repentance in a series of convicting words. To repent is to cleanse our hands. To go and sin no more. It’s to weep and mourn, to own up to the consequences of our actions—and not just for ourselves—but for those that have been hurt by our actions. That’s what God’s kingdom is all about – not just one righteous person, but a whole community of sharing, loving, patient, humble, compromising people.
            Because repentance, turning away from our sins, isn’t the end of the spiritual journey, but the beginning. It’s not merely enough to abstain from certain behaviors. No, instead we need to replace those behaviors that have ensnared us to selfishness and the world’s system of values with those that are in keeping with the values of the Kingdom of God. John Wesley called these “fruits meet for repentance” and James simply calls these good works.
            Again, we’re not talking about a religion of merit where our works earn our salvation. No, we are talking about a true change of heart that is given evidence by the types of things we do. It is the evidence that we have turned from serving the idol of self BY THE WAY that we serve others.
            And this brings us full circle back to the story of Robert and Amy.  Standing arguing in the checkout line at the grocery store. Each having something the other needs. And as our story comes to a close, it seems that neither one is going away happy. Robert has no celery and Amy has no butter. Fortunately, the cashier, longsuffering woman that she is, has a better solution. She asks simply if Robert really needs two butters, and if Amy really needs two celery stalks. Will pride get in the way of these two and stop them from conceding the truth that they really don’t need both or will they turn from their selfishness and relent and share their resources?
            Like many of our stories, the story of Robert and Amy is an open one. Like these two fictional people, each of us is faced with a very real choice. Will we continue to dispute and quarrel by serving our selfish desires or will we repent of our selfishness and humble ourselves before God? If we do, grace awaits us, the wonderful grace of Jesus that helps us overcome the flesh, the world, and the devil. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. Amen.