What Would Jesus Undo? Indifference – By Rev. Louis Timberlake

What Would Jesus Undo? Indifference
September 27, 2015
Rev. Louis Timberlake
James 5:13-20

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

The Church lost a prophet this past week. Phyllis Tickle died on Tuesday at age 81, after a short battle with lung cancer. Now, some of you may be familiar with Phyllis Tickle; others may not. I’m not positive that I’d be standing here today without her. I’m not sure whether I’d be a pastor without her. She wore a lot of hats over the course of her life, but she is partially known for starting the religion division for Publisher’s Weekly back in the 1990s. In that role, she began to highlight and write about major shifts that were and are taking place in Christianity in America. After she finished up at Publisher’s Weekly, she continued to talk and write about the future of the church almost until the day she died.

She told the stories of people that were practicing church in different, innovative ways. She pointed at these and said, “These are glimpses of where we’re heading. This is the future! If we are going to be faithful and fruitful as the Church, moving forward, then we need to pay attention!” She was passionate about what she saw as the next great movement of God in the church.

She also dealt with a lot of criticism, because, when you see something coming before others, it doesn’t often make you the most popular person in the room. Change is never easy. She was a prophet and you don’t have to read much of the Old Testament to see that prophets aren’t always treated well. But she approached her work and life with incredible joy and passion. She was so excited to witness to the new things that God is doing.

For me, her work was monumental. I hit a time in my life about eight years ago where I had a crisis of faith. Have you ever experienced that type of moment in your life? Have you ever been at a place that forced you to question everything you believed, that forced you to question a core part of your identity? If you have, you know that it is an incredibly difficult and painful experience. And, the mistake I made is that I didn’t tell anybody. Being the hardheaded, independent person that I am, I didn’t ask for any help. Please, if you encounter times of questioning and doubt, learn from my mistakes. Share them with someone.

So, during this time. I wasn’t sure what I believed, whether I wanted to be a part of the church, and, although I had explored a call into ministry, that was just about out the window. During this time, I stumbled upon the work of a group of thinkers and writers that were part of what Phyllis Tickle called Emergence Christianity. These writers helped me to work through a number of questions, doubts, and frustrations. Those writers had a platform and a voice largely due to the work of Phyllis Tickle. She paved the way. She created opportunities for them, so that someone like me could stumble upon a book in Barnes & Noble and find hope, find a path to a new understanding about God, the church, and my vocation. Without stumbling upon Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian, which ended up on shelves partly because of Phyllis’ influence, I’m not sure I’d be standing here today as a pastor in the church. She was not indifferent to people like me, who need a space and resources to wrestle with questions, doubts, and frustrations, so that I could encounter God in a new way. And she devoted her life to creating that space.

We’re talking today about how Jesus would undo indifference. When the church becomes indifferent, it is no longer a healthy church. It’s as simple as that. The second a church loses passion and urgency, it starts heading in the wrong direction. There are a couple primary forms of indifference with which we wrestle. The first is an indifference to others within the church community—an indifference to our brothers and sisters. The second is an indifference to those in our wider community, those who do not have a relationship with Christ.

You know, James doesn’t really have an ending. It’s supposed to be a letter and it begins like a letter, but then it just stops. There’s no farewell. There’s no real ending. These letters were intended to be read aloud to a community. So, think about the effect of this conclusion. Those last two verses just hang out there, reverberating. It means they must be important. It means that the author didn’t have anything to say that he thought was worthy of following those two verses.

My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

I actually like the way The Message puts it: “My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God.”

There’s a question near the very beginning of the scriptures. In the fourth chapter of Genesis, God appears to Cain, looking for Cain’s brother Abel. Cain’s response is, “Am I my brother's keeper?” It’s a question that comes up again and again. Am I responsible for the choices and actions of others?

When I was a kid and would have friends over, my parents would always tell me, “If they are your friends, then you are responsible for their actions while they are here.” And so, if a friend of mine did something mean to my sister, then I was held responsible. If a friend of mine broke something, then I was held responsible. And so, as a boy, I began to learn that the lives of people are connected. That our decisions have consequences, and not just consequences for the person making the decision. We have the power to influence and shape the lives of others.

So, last Wednesday was the first day of fall. The means a number of things. It means that the weather is getting cooler. It means that the leaves are beginning to change and the Blue Ridge Parkway is about to get extremely busy. It means that soon we’re going to have to start dodging acorns. My dog actually hides under the patio table when the wind starts blowing, because we have a big oak tree in our yard and he’s realized that wind means that an onslaught of acorns is coming. Most importantly, though, it means that football season is starting to get into full swing. We’re starting to get into the games that really matter. So, more so than usual, it means that football is a metaphor for life. Football is the ultimate team sport. In basketball, one or two great players can make a bad team good. I mean, look at Cleveland before and after LeBron returned. But, in football, one great player can’t make up for a bunch of bad players. One player doing his job cannot make up for ten not doing their jobs. In football, each player has a specific role and the success of the team hinges upon each player fulfilling that role. One missed block and, instead of your All-American quarterback throwing a touchdown, he gets sacked. One defender being out of position can result in the other team scoring. Every player has a responsibility and the success of the team is dependent upon the fulfillment of those responsibilities. The players have a responsibility to one another. They are connected to one another.

The great illusion in life is that we are isolated individuals. That somehow the choices and fates of others do not affect us. That somehow our choices and actions do not affect others. The thing is, we are all involved in humankind. Our lives are connected, which means we have a responsibility towards one another.

As many of you know, John Wesley was one of the founders of the Methodist movement. He emphasized a number of things in his speaking and writing. But, one of the things he emphasized most strongly was holiness. He believed that people could become increasingly holy over time, as they worked at it and allowed God to work in them. But, holiness, to him, was not something you achieved in isolation, but in community with others. He said, “The Gospel of CHRIST knows of no Religion, but Social; no Holiness but Social Holiness."*

There is no holiness but social holiness. To be holy is to allow God’s love to take over, to flow out of you, to shape your interactions with others, to cause you to look at the world, full of so much injustice and suffering, and have an overwhelming desire to impact it in such a way that God’s love is evident. God desires for us to pursue lives of holiness. But, in John Wesley’s view, we cannot pursue lives of holiness outside of community with others. There is no holiness but social holiness. Our responsibility for our wellbeing is connected to our responsibility for the wellbeing of others.

You know, this is a large church. We have close to 2,400 members. On any given Sunday morning, there are around 650–700. I grew up in large churches. I’ve worked in large churches. I love large churches. But there is one major drawback in a large church: You can get lost in the crowd. You cannot have close relationships with 700 people. That’s why it is essential that people find their community within this community. If you have not connected with some sort of small group or opportunity where you can be in relationship with a handful of people, I encourage you to do so. We have some great resources for helping you find the group that is the best fit for you. You can visit the Connection Point Desk, you can visit the website, or you can contact Alice Kunka, our Associate Pastor for Spiritual Formation. We would love to help you connect with a group. There is no holiness but social holiness. If we are not in community with others, than it is near impossible to pursue the lives that God intends for us.

Undoing indifference means caring for our brothers and sisters in our church community. It means not letting people simply fade away, but going after them. It means immersing ourselves in community, so that, when we struggle, others can help us. Who do you know that might be struggling with something? Who do you know that might have withdrawn from the community? Who do you know that needs someone to go after them and say, “I care about you and I want to help?”

This passage isn’t only about those who are within the Church, it’s about all who wander from God. We, as the Church, must fight the urge to become indifferent to people in our wider community. The Church is called to share the gospel with all people. This is a passage about the care of the Christian community, but if the community is not evangelistic, then it is not Christian. Evangelism is a difficult word for many of us and I’m right there with you. We hear evangelism and we think of the preacher yelling on the street corner. Or, we think of someone who is obnoxious or manipulative, trying to force views upon others. That’s not evangelism in our tradition.

Evangelism is about telling the story of the God we encounter in Christ. It’s telling the story of the light that has overcome the darkness. It’s telling the story of the God who created us and, even when we turn away, reaches out to us over and over and over. Evangelism is telling our stories. Our messy, painful stories of making mistakes, being hurt, feeling inadequate, and losing our way. It’s sharing the joy and beauty of those moments when our worlds are disrupted by the grace of God, when our stories and God’s story become one. Evangelism is about giving a firsthand account of what it looks like for God to change someone’s life.

Phyllis Tickle was a prophet; she was also an evangelist. She devoted her life to helping the church sharing the good news of Jesus with a world in desperate need of some good news.

Since before the beginning of human history, the world has continued to do this strange, wonderful, and frustrating thing. It has continued to change. Sometimes, we, as people, have embraced that change. Other times we have fought it kicking and screaming. And yet, the world has continued to change. And, as the world has changed, so have the ways we have related with God. The church to which this letter was written looked very different from the church we see today. Sure, there are those commons threads; we are still people of the same faith. But the manifestation of that faith has changed. What it looks like on the ground has evolved over time.

Phyllis Tickle spent her life discussing the changes that have already occurred in our culture and the changes that are on the horizon. She told the stories of people and churches that are embracing these changes and sharing the story of God with new people in new ways. The funny thing is, as she told those stories, it became clear that God has been at work in the midst of these changes for a while. That’s how it tends to work, even throughout scripture. God goes ahead and then calls the church to catch up and join in. God is always out in front. The question is, how close are we following? Where do we need to pay attention to the changes that are occurring, to where God is at work, so that we can continue to tell the great story of salvation?

Indifference is easy. It’s almost natural. It’s easy for us to become so immersed in our own lives, our own struggles, that we become indifferent to those of others.

But, this passage tells us that indifference is not an option. We are a community. We are connected to each other. And so, the struggles of another are our own struggles. Indifference is not an option. We are, in fact, our brothers and our sisters’ keepers.

Indifference is also not the mission of the church in the world. Our communities are full of hurting, lonely people. God calls us to bear hope. God calls us to tell the story of the light that has come into the darkness. God calls us to give a firsthand account of what it looks like for God to change someone’s life, so that God can change the lives of others. 

So, let us not be a people of indifference, but let us be the Church, the community called by God to recognize the needs of others--within the church community and within the wider community—and to respond to those needs with urgency and love.

Discussion Questions

  • How do we, in the church community, foster a sense of responsibility for our fellow brothers and sisters?
  • How do YOU find a smaller community within this larger church community? If you don’t have that community, what are steps you can take to find it? 
  • Do have an example of when someone chose not to be indifferent to your needs and reached out to you at a key time?
  • How do we keep from becoming indifferent to individuals in our wider community?What does it mean to do evangelism well? 
  • How could we, as a church, do a better job of reaching out to others?

*Wesley, John, “Preface,” Hymns and Sacred Poems