Sunday, September 2
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
O Father of lights, from whose word of truth we have been born as firstfruits of your creatures: make us quick to listen and slow to speak, that the word implanted in us may take root to nourish all our living, and that we may be blessed in our doing and fruitful in action. Amen.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
All Readings For This Sunday
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 with Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 or
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 with Psalm 15
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
1. How would you describe your worldview, and how was it shaped?
2. How do you know what really matters to God?
3. How would you describe grace? When have you experienced grace?
4. What would a community look like if it tried to "be love"?
5. In our culture, is it realistic to strive for humility?
by Kate Huey
The Letter of James has been read as a kind of Christian wisdom literature; in fact, Carl Holladay observes that the lectionary provides readings from James for the next five weeks, with a number of readings from the Jewish wisdom tradition. This letter doesn't speak so much to martyrdom or dramatic events like the sudden return of Jesus. Instead, it sounds like a teacher who wants his students to live their everyday lives well, that is, with integrity, in line with what they believe. "Faith" and "works" are not opposed; they're not even disconnected. The truly wise, truly faithful individual is known not by what they say they believe, but in how they live what they believe. After all, according to Eugene Peterson and many other commentators, wisdom is about being able to live well the truth that we believe and the faith that we embrace.
James may be familiar to us as the brother of Jesus who later was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. We remember his response to Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15, when the early church was wrestling with the issue of what to do with all those Gentiles who wanted to accept Christianity without observing all the strict laws and regulations of traditional Judaism. "Therefore I have reached the decision," James said in Acts 15:19, "that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God…." James himself is an example of one who lives humbly enough to be open to the Spirit at work in the community of faith, even if the decision is a surprising, perhaps even a shocking, one.
Our passage this week is from a "letter" written by James or by one writing in his name, although Sophie Laws calls it a letter only "in literary form, not a real piece of correspondence." According to Laws, the letter was accepted over the course of several centuries by the church in different places and finally made its way to a permanent home in the New Testament canon. However, it's probably most familiar to us because of Martin Luther's concerns about its emphasis on "works" that may seem to contradict or de-emphasize Paul's teaching on justification by faith.
It's true that James' letter provides many instructions for what we should do and how we should act. However, Douglas Moo observes that James' many instructions aren't a real problem for Christians in the first century (of James), the sixteenth (of Luther), or the twenty-first century, who hold fast to the Word and depend on God's grace. James' letter, after all, is grounded in grace and celebrates the "new birth," the new life we experience as we participate "in God's kingdom work of reclaiming the world."
Moo's reflection on grace and new birth and the unfolding, ongoing process of God's kingdom work is a good illustration of the many layers to the ministry of evangelism. It's tempting for many Christians to think of evangelizing as something we "do" to and with "unbelievers" who haven't heard or accepted the Good News, those who haven't yet become Christians. Once they convert, presumably "our work here is done." But that's not really true, because evangelism (notice the "good news" embedded in that word) is something that goes on, just like "becoming" a Christian is a lifelong experience. We nurture our own faith and the faith of others--that is, God does the nurturing but we work alongside God in this "kingdom work." In the New Testament, then, Moo suggests that James isn't writing about the call to a sudden conversion; he's writing about how to "let God's word, already implanted in our hearts, have its full effect in our lives."
The full effect of God's word
Its full effect in our lives. That's what James' talk about being doers and not just hearers is all about, not earning our salvation or ever thinking that we could, but letting God's word "have its full effect in our lives." That's the way God talks to God's people, back in the Old Testament when Jeremiah (31:31-34) spoke of whole new hearts and a new covenant when God's people are open to God's word. That's the way God talks in the New Testament as well, in the Gospels themselves and in these pastoral letters to early churches that are striving to let their lives be wholly transformed by a God who is active in their world. This is, we know, a God who is day by day continuing to bless God's people with a word that calls us to a dramatically new way of living: "We are not just to walk away mumbling 'how interesting' or to use [God's word] as no more than a source for intellectual stimulation and academic debate," Moo writes. No, our worldview has to change, our whole way of seeing things, our way of thinking: we are to conform our whole lives to the Word of God, not the world around us (The Lectionary Commentary).
A few weeks ago, we read similar instructions from the author of the letter to the Ephesians, who, by the way, also had something to say about anger as a problem for Christians, and we considered Karl Rahner's suggestion that our lifelong hope is to "become" Christians, not to "be" Christians, as if such a transformation could happen in an instant. We can think of James' instructions, and all of those pastoral efforts of the epistles to provide guidance for daily life, as words of wisdom for the long journey we share. Are we open to have our thinking re-programmed by the word of God, and our way of seeing things perhaps turned around? In what ways has our thinking been programmed by the world around us? Has this programming worked out well, and is it coherent with the gospel? For example, what does the gospel value most, and what does our culture value most?
What really matters to God?
We live in conflicted times within Christianity, but it seems that every time in history has had its conflicts. Perhaps one of our greatest struggles here in "American Christianity" is the standoff between those who claim the moral high ground because of one set of issues, and those who turn repeatedly back to texts like this one, where humility is the tell-tale sign of a true Christian, "the widow and the orphan" are more important than any dogma or fine theological point, and morals are more pressing issues when they relate to those in need. The Bible itself says so, again and again. Consider Ezekiel 16:49, for example: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." What does that tell us about what matters to God? Are there good things about our culture that we must not dismiss? James speaks of religion that is "pure and undefiled," and then describes it. We often speak of "true religion." What does that mean to you? The ancient philosopher-poet Lucretius described true religion, true holiness, as not being found in religious ceremonies but in being able to look at all things "with a mind at peace." How do you respond to that? What do you need in order to be able to look at all things "with a mind at peace"? How would you define or describe "true religion," and does it resemble James' description?
Like our reading several weeks ago from the Letter to the Ephesians, this letter also describes what it looks like to live in an everyday faithfulness that is the most fitting response to what God has done and is doing in our lives and in the world. All around us, there are forces that can distract and derail us. All through our lives, there are temptations and inclinations, human failings and tendencies, that might shape us into something less than God's dream for us. But these things are not sent by God to tempt us, for it's clear that all good things, every good gift, comes from the God who calls us to goodness. This is an intriguing counterpoint to those who claim that God "tests" us. Perhaps life tests us, challenges and brokenness test us, sickness and resentment test us, but God gives all good gifts, and in God is the strength we need to meet every challenge life presents.
A good, long look in the mirror
Once again, as in Ephesians, we hear what the members of a Christian community "look like"--not what they see when they look in a mirror (a fleeting, surface-only image), but who and whose they are, by how they are and how they live. How do they (how do we) treat the most vulnerable members of the community? Do they (do we) listen first and speak only after thoughtful and patient reflection; as Eugen Peterson translates it, "Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear" (The Message)?
Our culture hardly lifts up humility as a strength in those who want to shine. And yet God gives gifts that are "rivers of light cascading down from the Father of light" (Peterson's translation in The Message is an excellent resource for reading the epistles). Scholars claim that James is referring here to the stars and planets in the sky, but there's more than one way to experience this metaphor. For example, there's a striking contrast between celebrities "in the limelight" who are "full of themselves," and those quiet individuals who have a different kind of radiance, as they shine with an inner light born of love and peace. We know the difference when we meet them, but still we turn away so easily in search of the outer lights and recognition and acclaim by the world around us. So James speaks to us as well today, in our pews and as church communities and as the United Church of Christ. God has been so generous to us, giving us every good gift, and we can choose to respond to God's gifts with our own gifts, sharing generously with the "orphans and widows" of our own time, sharing of the abundance we have received. Or we can turn quickly from the mirror, satisfied with what we see, and turn our attention to other, "more pressing" things. What indeed will be our response?
For further reflection
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
Go put your creed into your deed.
What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.
Francis Beaumont, 17th century
Faith without works is like a bird without wings; though she may hop with her companions on earth, yet she will never fly with them to heaven.
Mother Teresa, 20th century
Keep in mind that our community is not composed of those who are already saints, but of those who are trying to become saints. Therefore let us be extremely patient with each other's faults and failures.
Johnny Cash, 20th century
I wore black because I liked it. I still do, and wearing it still means something to me. It's still my symbol of rebellion--against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others' ideas.
Henry Adams, 19th century
What you do speaks so loudly I can't hear what you are saying.
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Sunday, September 2