Scripture Readings: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

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One of the unforgettable moments of General Council this summer came near the end of the week, actually it came in the last hours of the meeting.

Like most meetings of the church, we were starting to get bogged down with business in the mad rush to get as much work done as possible with the few remaining hours we have left to meet. There came a moment when some “re-wording” was required so there was an invitation to hear from one of our observers. As though we might just try and “fit him in” since we had a few minutes.

His name was Rev. Paul Walfall and he was our “intercultural” observer. I had the privilege of being in the same small group as Paul all week long, and quickly realized he is a wise man. Paul is also an immigrant to Canada from Jamaica and serves in a church outside of Edmonton.

As Paul spoke to the church, his words began to impact the room. Paul spoke about racism in the church, and he spoke as one who has experienced it himself, and heard the stories of many others. As he finished, the moderator thanked him for his powerful message and we moved back into dealing with the loads of business we still had to cover in the final hour or two we had left to meet.

After some time there was another beak in the meeting while some more massaging of words were required and at that moment two people went to a microphone and asked if the council was going to respond to what Paul had spoke about.

After a few moments of quiet reflection, the business of the meeting was put on hold and the real work of the church began. We spent nearly two hours hearing story after story of racism in the church from person after person who are minorities in Canada.

We never did get to any more business. Yet, in that moment, it was clear that this was the far more important thing to be dealing with. I know this because I’ve been hearing about racism in the church for about 15 years, as a close friend of mine is a black minister, and he has been very open about his own experiences.

Frankly, I’m tired about hearing of racism in the church. Why? It’s not because I don’t think it’s important, it’s because we should be past this issue already. It should have been dealt with long ago. It should be over, especially in the church. But it’s not. And brothers and sisters in this church are still victims of racism even today. It breaks my heart.

Is there racism in Cape Breton? You know there is! For example, look at how people talk about and treat the native communities! And that’s not all I’ve heard. Basically, if you speak negatively about another race, that’s racism! And racism is big in the news these days. And it should not be tolerated.

We need to speak against any racism we see. It’s not good enough to shrug our shoulders and say, “There’s nothing I can do!” because it’s not true. If you see an act of racism you need to speak against it.

It’s not acceptable to say, “Well that’s just uncle Joe and everyone knows that’s just the way Joe is. He’s harmless.”

But is he harmless? Are children around and picking up on what he is saying? Are they learning that it’s ok to speak that way?

Racism is learned. We are not born to see people differently because they are a different colour. We pick it up somewhere along the way. So if someone is being racist, it needs to be corrected because someone else is going to learn the behaviour from that person.

It needs to stop.

And what is really heartbreaking is that it happens in the church! Minister after minister went to the microphone at General Council and spoke about how they experience racism in the church. And their stories were pretty tame compared to some I’ve heard from my friend! So I know they’ve been hurt much deeper than they are letting on. They aren’t quite ready to share the whole story.

Is this how the church should act? Is this what following Jesus is all about? Do we ignore signs of hatred and let people suffer unjustly?

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (James 1:17,18)

Life is a gift from God. All life is a gift from God. We may choose to disagree on how we live our lives, but life is a gift.

As Christians, how we interact with the world reflects upon God, the one we say we believe in. So if we act nasty and hurtful, what are people going to think of the God we say we follow?

You have to wonder how God thought this would be a good idea. “Let’s put a sinful people out there to represent me!” Not the best marketing strategy, but maybe it says more about our own personal relationship with God than what God might actually be like when we act in sinful ways.

Right? If we agree that God loves everyone, but we go around being racist or whatever towards others, then shouldn’t that be on us? Shouldn’t we go back to God and say, “I think I messed up there God, can you help me fix it?”

Which is the right thing to do. The problem is, are we doing this? Are we realizing our mistakes, are we seeing our own sin, and then seeking forgiveness and direction on how to fix this part of our lives? For some people, sure! We all want to get better. But for others, some just don’t seem to care. This is a problem.

What we need to realize is, and we’ve talked a bit about this over the last couple weeks, what we take into our bodies that impacts our relationship with God has a huge impact on how we interact with the world.

James tells us how we need to act. He says we need to be slow to act. That is, just don’t run our mouths off first chance we get. We need to listen carefully and respond appropriately. We need to be slow to anger, which means we just can’t go around blowing our top every time the President tweets something. Which is often in case you didn’t know this.

James is reminding us we need to act as God would have us act. And we need to consider this in all aspects of our lives and not just when we walk in the church. Although I’m sure we all have examples when this ugliness has made its way into the church as well. It often doesn’t end well.

James goes on to say, if you think you are religious, but don’t act that way, your religion is useless. That’s a harsh statement, but if you think about it, it makes pretty good sense. If you claim to follow Jesus, and if Jesus is known as a man who loved the afflicted and vulnerable, and pretty much everyone he met, if you don’t act like someone who loves people, then what’s the point?

James says we need to be doers, we need to do what Jesus asks us to do. That is to live faithful lives which bear witness to the love of God he expressed to the world. It means walking with people, feeding them, healing them, and inviting them into relationship with God.

If instead we’re actually working against what Jesus has taught, then there’s a huge problem. And one could even question why you call yourself a Christian if you act that way.

When Jesus was challenged in Mark 7 when his disciples ate with unwashed hands he went on a bit of a rant about what it is that makes us “unclean.”

In those days, if you were not clean before you ate, you then were considered to contaminate your food, which would then contaminate your body, and you would be “unclean” for a period of time. Sure, we know that germs can transfer to our food and make us sick, but that’s not the point. “Unclean” people were shunned and shamed and pushed aside of the community. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.

What Jesus is getting to is it’s not the physical food that impacts our “cleanliness” but our actions. It’s our actions which show who we really are. If our actions are racist, then we are racist.

Now it could be, I hope in some ways, that if we’re unknowingly acting racist it’s because no one has pointed it out to us. And if someone takes us aside and says, “You know, uncle Joe, that phrase you say all the time, well that’s racist and you probably shouldn’t say it any more” and then we change our actions, then that’s a good thing. But if we know it to be racist and keep using it, then there’s a huge problem. And it gets worse if we say we’re a Christian and still do it.

Our actions reflect what’s in our heart. Jesus said as much when we spoke to the crowd. He says these evil attitudes, thoughts and actions come from our heart.

If these things are in our heart and make up who we are as a person, then what can we possibly do to change it?

Well, I can tell you it probably won’t happen overnight. Sorry. But once we know we have these problems in our heart, and we acknowledge them to be wrong, then that’s the first step. In order to change, we have to want to be changed.

The next step is to take this need for change to God. God is the only one who can change our heart. We can try and try and try on our own, and sometimes it will work for a while, but without God, it just keeps coming back. We need to let God speak to the change and we need to let him into our heart so he can make the changes needed.

There’s a saying that’s been going around for a while now which seems to have originated from the book Just Like Jesus by Max Lucado,“God loves you just the way you are, but He refuses to leave you that way.”

The next line of the quote is this, “He wants you to be just like Jesus.”

The only way we can become more like Jesus is to let God speak to our hearts and make the necessary changes required to be more like Jesus.

I can’t believe how much God has changed me in the last 15 years. I’m a totally different person! And the changes are still coming. I know I’ve still got a loooong way to go until I’m like Jesus, and somedays I take a few steps in the wrong direction, but I know where God is leading me. I’m just glad he has abundant patience and mercy to wait for me to get there. There is still stuff in me that I know needs to change, and I know God is working on it with me. Thank you God for not giving up!

What we do reflects who we are in our hearts. Today we heard Jesus say it, and we heard James say it.

God wants to speak to our hearts and break the chains of sin that keeps us locked up from being more like Jesus. It’s not easy, because that sin will fight back, it won’t let go easily, especially if it’s something we’ve been carrying for a very long time.

We need to let it go. We need to let God point it out to us and we need to let it go and let more of Jesus in.

If you need help with any of this, I am here to help. I can’t tell you what you need to fix, but I can give you simple ways to help you hear God more clearly in your life. And he will cleanse your heart to make more room for Jesus.

Jesus said we are never alone. He will be with us in our daily walk with God to become more like him. This is God’s promise to you and to the world as he loves us each and every day.

We need this relationship with him so that we can help make this a better world for all God’s children, removing hate and violence towards others in his glorious name.

Let us pray,

Holy Jesus,
Thank you for walking with us, we want to be more like you. We want to leave behind the hurt we carry, we want to be free from the sins which enslave us, and we want to be an example of love in this world.

Help us to open our hearts to the love God wishes to pour into us, so that when we are pressed, when we are under stress, instead of anger and hatred coming out of our hearts, only love will spill out.

Create in us a clean heart so we may love the world as you so love us.

We pray this in your most Holy Name. Amen and amen.