United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds September 2, 2018

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)

color_green.jpg

Worship resources for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17) are at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations:
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 with Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 or
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 with Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
James 1:17-27

Note: The Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, September 2, is Labor Sunday, a day to lift up workers, celebrate their contributions, and support their struggles. It is also a day to lament and commit ourselves to reducing the huge disparities between the very wealthy and everyone else, especially the poor. Resources are available on the JWM Labor Sunday webpage.

Focus Theme:
Be Love

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

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 (Preaching through the Christian Year B).

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," then, 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. Indeed, 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 ("Introduction to The Letter of James" in The Message).

Living humbly, open to the Spirit at work

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 says 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. Even if it makes us uncomfortable.

A concern to Martin Luther

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, the letter is probably most familiar to us, Laws notes, 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 ("Introduction to The Letter of James" in The HarperCollins Study Bible).

Grounded in grace

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 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" (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and Epistles).

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 in the ministry of evangelism. It's tempting for 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."

Evangelism is an ongoing process

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 need to nurture our own faith and perhaps the faith of others--or better, God does the nurturing but we need to 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 Lectionary Commentary: Acts and Epistles).

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.

A new way of living

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 to the world around us and its way of seeing and doing things (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles).

Becoming Christian our whole life long

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 then Karl Rahner's suggestion that our lifelong hope is to "become" Christians, not just 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, day by day?

In many ways our thinking has 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 (usually related to sexual morality), 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. For example, given Scripture's concern for "the stranger in our midst," how are we called to respond to the plight, the suffering, of over five hundred children separated from their parents on our southern border, still separated these many weeks, with no end in sight?

Consider, too, Ezekiel 16:49: "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? How do we Christians treat the most vulnerable members of our community?

What is true religion?

Are there also 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? How would you define or describe "true religion," and does it resemble James' description?

Everyday faithfulness looks like...

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 life of 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.

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"--but this is not what they see when they look in a mirror, a fleeting, surface-only image. We can see who and whose they are, by how they are and what they do.

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 Peterson renders it, "Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear" (The Message)?

A dedication to good works

Last year, my daughter moved to Georgia from Florida, and she's had several occasions to visit Plains, Georgia, where former President Jimmy Carter lives and works (still, even after a diagnosis of cancer). It seems that the news coverage of the life of this man who was once the most powerful person in the world increasingly lifts up his unrelenting dedication to good works since leaving the White House. He has never hesitated to connect these commitments to the gospel itself--what he does flows out of what he believes.

Of course, he has also made courageous statements on the rights of women, including within Christian settings; what he says also flows out of what he believes. President Carter has worked tirelessly on behalf of the most vulnerable, and those who have no voice or self-determination.

As a mother, I am so grateful to see how impressed my daughter is by his witness, by the way he lives his life. She actually makes a great effort to attend his Sunday school lessons, and wants to bring her mother along someday soon. It's not lost on this mom that this young person wants to learn about God from someone who embodies what he teaches.

"Rivers of light"

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" (Eugene Peterson's version 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?

kate-new.png

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

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." (some sources say Henry Adams)

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."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2nd century
"Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one."

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, 21st century
"What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent with the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves."

John O'Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessing, 21st century
"Each of us is an artist of our days; the greater our integrity and awareness, the more original and creative our time will become."

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."


Lectionary texts:

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."

Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9

My heart overflows
   with a goodly theme;
I address my verses
   to the king;
my tongue is like the pen
   of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome
   of men;
grace is poured
   upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you
   forever.

Your throne, O God,
   endures forever and ever.
Your royal scepter is a scepter
   of equity;
you love righteousness
   and hate wickedness.

Therefore God, your God,
   has anointed you
with the oil of gladness
   beyond your companions;

your robes are all fragrant
   with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces
   stringed instruments make you glad;

daughters of kings are among those
   who serve you,
at your right hand stands the queen
   in gold of Ophir.

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.

You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!" For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children's children —

Psalm 15

O God, who may abide
   in your tent?
Who may dwell
   on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly,
   and do what is right,

who speak the truth
   from their heart,
and do not slander
   with their tongue,

and do no evil
   to their friends,
nor take up a reproach
   against their neighbors;

in whose eyes the wicked
   are despised,
but who honor those
   who fear God;

who stand by their oath
   even to their hurt;

who do not lend money
   at interest,
and do not take a bribe
   against the innocent.

Those who do these things
   shall never be moved.

James 1:17-27

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.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

'This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.

"For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
    
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!