Sermon Seeds: Be Love
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 17
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
by Kathryn Matthews (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 (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. So “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. 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).
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.
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 (“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.” 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 – or better, God does the nurturing but we work alongside God. 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. 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 (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and Epistles).
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, 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, 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? How would you define or describe “true religion,” and does it resemble James’ description?
What is everyday faithfulness?
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” – but not what they see when they look in a mirror, a fleeting, surface-only image. Can we see who and whose they are, by how they are and what they do? Do they (do we) listen first and speak only after thoughtful and patient reflection; as Peterson translates it, “Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear” (The Message)?
For example, these days, we have been thinking about the life and legacy of former President Jimmy Carter, after his recent diagnosis of cancer. It’s interesting that so much of the coverage of the life of this man, who was once the most powerful person in the world, 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. (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. How do we Christians treat the most vulnerable members of our community?
“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 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?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/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.”
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.”
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 —
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.
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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.