Sunday, September 2, 2018
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)
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 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. 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 others, wisdom is about being able to live well the truth that we believe and the faith that we embrace.
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 GodÖ." 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.
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.
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."
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 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 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 to the world around us.
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 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. 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?
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.
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. We can 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 renders it, "Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear" (The Message)?
Last year, my daughter moved to Georgia from Florida, and has 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?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the 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 in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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."
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