Mk 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23 and James 1.17-27
It’s Labor Day weekend; the UCC designates today “Labor Sunday.” Now there’s a Christian holy day most of us haven’t heard of!
As you can read on the back of your Order of Service, It’s when we are to lift up workers and their service, to celebrate their contributions, remember their struggles and work beside them for justice over against any powers that would deny them.
Being involved in the needs of our neighbors is basic Gospel. So today, among the things you consider at church, may I ask you to think about the disparities between the rich and poor — and how that disparity leaves the least advantaged without.
But, church, if faith is to be Christian, it has to be more active than thinking about things. In this case, it also involves working to reduce disparities that leave the most vulnerable without basics necessary to live. The end of summer is full of bbqs and getting ready to go back to school, but as Christians, Labor Day also challenges us to undertake some action.
There’s a coincidence I like that our reading today is from James. It’s one of those texts that’s been maligned for advocating works-righteousness. For re-introducing the law into Christianity, for contravening the proposition that grace is sufficient and liberating. I’ll explain this further in a minute, but get the irony or joke: on Labor Sunday, we’re offered a text that some worry makes too much of work.
Ok, I said, it’s probably humor that only pastors can appreciate. But it makes a point– theology matters because it translates into how we see, understand and respond to the world around us.
Take our flying Bible (referring to the image of the Bible over the pulpit in the Sanctuary at Old First, visible in this photo of the young people dancing during worship).
It was painted up there in protest. The Reform churches in Philadelphia were proclaiming front and center that they weren’t buying Mercersberg Theology, the latest craze coming out of the Reformed Church’s Seminary, a sort of high church Protestantism that advocated “reapproachment” with the Catholics. (Though I’m as low a low church Protestant as one can find, I sometimes wonder if “going Mercersberg” in the city might not of help relieved some of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant force of Protestantism in the 1860’s, but that’s another sermon!)
Our text today throws us back into an even older theological dispute. The one Jesus started with the Pharisees by pointing out that the outward performance of a duty without the right inward motivation isn’t enough. What really matters, what really makes a difference, Jesus insisted, is where your heart lies.
Paul then translates Jesus’ teaching into a theological formula. He repeats it in a number of ways in different places. But Ephesians 2: 8-9 states “For by grace you have been saved through faith… not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.”
Curiously, the Pharisees had held rightly, as we said in the intro., “sometimes doing something is the only way to really learn it.”
Likewise, Jesus had a point when he responded, “Ah yes, but not if you’re just going through the motions.”
And now here comes James, adding the next step in the thesis and antithesis leapfrog — because he’s worried, after Paul, that too extreme an emphasis on “faith alone” frees us from having to work out and express what we believe in our. He wants to be sure we our faith leads us in life in real ways.
So his response to Jesus’ response in verse 24, chapter 2: “You see, a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.”
It’s basic Protestant theology that “truly living” is not earned by anything we do or say or believe. Ultimately we have to say thank you for everything. (That’s why I chide us sometimes that I’d like to hear more prayers of thanksgiving in our prayers of the people!)
Beloved, the point is: whatever experience we have of redemption in this life, whatever promise of an eternal future we glimpse — they come to us by grace. God’s gifts that we haven’t — COULDN’T– earn if we tried.
More than a heady motivational speaker, James, is a pragmatic, point by point, instructional teacher. Rather than an eloquent philosophy professor offering abstractions you need to deduce the implications from, he’s a dance instructor, providing step by step how-to about how to get from here to there, or how to begin dancing gracefully.
Martin Luther carped that James wasn’t any longer Christian. In Luther’s fear, James has let go of God’s grace as the only thing we need. Instead, James makes lists of all the things you have to do. And lists of what you shouldn’t do. James, in Luther’s eyes, reintroduces a law, substitutes works for faith, reduces the Gospel to some latter-day Pharisaic religion.
Maybe Luther was just hitting the ball back from another extreme in some endless game of theological “Pong.” And I could be doing the same thing in this sermon! But I don’t think James contradicts Jesus’ emphasis on the intentions of our hearts or Paul’s theology of grace. It’s just that the Gospel is too big, too complex to sum up in a single sentence. For us to grasp its depth, it’s needs some dependent clauses and more nuance. All our engagements with theology, the things of God, end up about as rudimentary at that first video game Pong– a dark screen, a couple of white lines for paddles and a video blip, the ball, getting hit back and forth to some basic, electronic sound!
There is a danger: we can say we believe, but not let that faith guide our actions: “sloppy agape,” where we let ourselves off the hook of religious accountability by fooling ourselves that the greatness of God’s love wipes out our responsibility.
James warns us: “Don’t take Paul’s clarification to the extreme. If you go too far, you’ll be out of bounds again! It’s all a dialectic. Somewhere in the middle of all our imperfect and incomplete back and forth. The good life has to be deeper than going through the motions. But “right belief” without any ensuring actions is equally deadly.”
James is a pastor who knows people learn differently. That some people need more pointers. That many struggle to make the translation from theory to action easily. So he spells it out; provides detailed directions to follow (rather than expecting us to write our own manuals). He offers practical signposts for following the way, against which we can judge our direction and measure the distance covered.
James point: faith can’t be disconnect from actions. Live out the truth you believe and the faith you embrace. Express your deepest beliefs in real action.
So maybe the synthesis of the intergenerational and ultimately inter-religious argument on which Christianity is founded is this: “Let God’s word — a gift God plants as a seed in your heart, grow to have its full effect in your life, let it mature, tend it lovingly and give thanks as you bear fruit.”
The Gospel’s full effect in our lives. Being doers and not just hearers of the Word. Letting the implications and consequences of God’s love lead us. The word directing how we are and who we become.
Can you see how faith is changing you? How your actions are changing?
Christians don’t just respond “how interesting” when we hear the Gospel. God’s word isn’t some ethereal realm for academic debate.
No, it’s the goal for how we live in the world. How we treat people. What we do and say (and what we don’t!). Not just in our hearts and minds, but also in our hands and feet. Our whole way of being in the world changing right along with the depth of our being.
Karl Rahner has pointed out, you can’t really just “be” a Christian. It’s too active to be a status. Few of us are instantaneously transformed!
Likewise, becoming a Christian isn’t something that happens individually. It gets worked out in community. Yes, hearts may only change one at a time, but we’re talking about redeeming our relations and our interactions.
It’s a group process. And, frankly, a bit of a struggle, to let life make us better, not worse!
In what ways have you been programmed by the world around us? Are you open to have your life re-programmed by the word of God?
One of you is trying to find your way into faith. As a help, I’ve suggested an over-simplification: Ask yourself three questions:
~ first, what does our culture value most?
~ second, what’s the Gospel values most?
~ finally, what do I want to value most?
We’ve been thinking a lot about why people should be part of a local church these past 3 years. That’s the case we think needs to be made, especially for people who are increasingly less likely to look towards the church for anything positive.
People these days often think church is just a drag– boring, irrelevant, judgmental, out of touch, burdensome, full of pretending and mostly fake, deadly. They expect that we’re some sort of neo-Victorians who want women back in the home, gays in the closet and prayer in the schools.
Congregational life is our proof, our publicly saying, “Hey, that’s not who we really are.”
But it’s also the community wherein we practice at what becoming we are called to preach. It’s real people living and serving together, in part to get past “just thinking about” who and how we are to be. It’s a community gathered for action.
It’s a real-life place — sometimes too real life! — where we can work at becoming different, individually and together. One could say this is Old First’s expertise — making room for people to be and become different.
One visitor confided to me once: “sometimes I think I’m the only normal person around Old First!” I responded, “Maybe you are!”
We’re a petri dish, if you will, where we grow a different kind of sample. A community and individuals that may or may not thrive in our world at large. But a subculture that offers an alternative society compared to world around us.
How then is our micocosm different? Despite the bad press and contemporary society’s prejudice, Christianity isn’t about where we stand on any of the hotbed issues. The tell-tale sign of a transformative faith is humility. Thomas Merton said, Pride makes us artificial. Humility makes us real.
In other words, caring for “the widow and the orphan” are more important than any issue, dogma or doctrine. And “morals” that get so much headline space these days are only really important as 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.” (Notice what Ezekiel doesn’t even mention?)
What matters to God?
When our culture is promoting those things, we celebrate that in church (as we did this morning with the schools and education). But when the world around us forgets what’s important, or better, who’s important, we choose to stand on our own.
When we hear it’s ok to overlook or disregard or hold certain people down… When you see some people’s needs going unmet… When the excuse is made that violence or domination are unavoidable… we know we need to create an alternative vision, reality and response.
My pastor growing up used to say, “‘true religion,’ — holiness — isn’t about any ceremony or ritual. Instead, it’s about being able to see everything around you, to notice even the little things and the people it’d be easier to overlook or forget, or choose not to care about. “
Imagine being able to notice and respond to and care for EVERYTHING?
Isn’t that what we try to do as a church community? To make room for, to remember, to show concern for every last one of us. Right down to the last and the least parts of ourselves?
Here the most vulnerable members of our community are assured a seat at the communion table we are about to gather around. And when people are difficult or not easily lovable, we’re loved all the more.
I’m finished now, but with one last request: find someone after church (coffee hour is always a good time, before you get overwhelmed and forget by everything else in the world that lays demands on your attention)… Find someone who your faith propels you to offer some action: a greeting, forgiveness, a challenge, support. (Preacher’s note: Interestingly, after worship, I came downstairs into the lower narthex to find one of you had never made it into the sanctuary on Sunday, because someone else had begun talking to her, and “just seemed to need to talk.”)
…For only in living out what we truly believe can we become Christian. Amen.