Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pure religion

The wisdom of Jesus and James
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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We trying to do two things at once this morning.
We are celebrating work. Tomorrow is Labor Day,
and we want to dedicate our labor—
all our labor, in whatever field we work—
to the God who gives us the capacity to work.
And we are beginning a 5-week book study of the Epistle of James,
looking at it alongside some Jesus stories from Mark’s gospel.
I don’t think I need to make a stretch, even a small one,
to connect these two things—
the wisdom of Jesus and James,
and our reflections on the occasion of Labor Day.

James, the Epistle, has gotten a bad rap sometimes,
in the history of the church.
It’s a book too often neglected,
by scholars, preachers, and church members.

I don’t believe I’ve ever done a sermon series on the book,
even though it shows up the lectionary,
every three years in September.

One reason for its neglect, is that it’s commonly misread.
Some claim the book is trying to tone down, or even mute
the apostle Paul’s powerful and influential writing
about the grace of God.
It rubs some people the wrong way
that James talks so much about doing the right thing,
about good works,
about Christian ethics.
They think he short-circuits God’s grace in Jesus Christ,
sounds too much like works-righteousness.

Martin Luther thought that, to an extent.
Back in Reformation days, Luther famously said
that James was “an epistle of straw.”
He later edited out that comment,
and actually praised the book of James,
but he always had trouble trying to reconcile James and Paul.

So, some Christians seem to suffer a bit of
theological embarrassment about James.
They don’t say that, in so many words,
but they quietly ignore the book,
pass it by like the wounded man on the road to Jericho.
So I’m going to play the Good Samaritan today,
and stop and tend to the wounded,
and treat this book with the respect it is due,
and see that it is cared for properly,
and fully restored to the church, for our benefit.

God’s grace fills this book, to overflowing.
Not so much by what it says explicitly about grace,
but by the way it talks about God.
James makes clear, God takes the initiative—
in the world, and in the church.
The church is God’s new creation, not ours.

We, as God’s new creation, are designed by God
to show forth God’s purposes and will in the world.
This work of new creation doesn’t happen,
because by our works we make it happen.
No, it’s God’s initiative, God’s will, and God’s presence—
God’s grace, if you will—
that brings it about.
The church, and we, its member parts,
are simply called to become who we are,
to become what God has made us.
For James, obedience is an act of freedom.
We get to be, we are free to be,
we are allowed to fully reflect the image of our Creator,
without blemish,
because God implants in us the living Word,
God gives us the capacity.

So every good and perfect gift, we heard in today’s reading,
every good gift comes from above.
If it’s good, it’s from God.
It cannot be otherwise.
So if our deeds are good, if our life is praiseworthy,
that can only be because the capacity for good
was planted in us by God.
God’s grace in us, issues forth in deeds
that are consistent with God’s will,
that align with God’s purposes.

Hear it again, in James’ words, chapter 1, verse 18:
“In fulfillment of his own purpose
[God] gave us birth by the word of truth,
so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”

The church, as a new creation by God,
bears the fruit God intended,
naturally, and freely,
by virtue of the word of truth God instilled in us.

The wisdom of James reflects precisely the wisdom of his brother Jesus,
who said once,
“are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?
no . . . every good tree bears good fruit . . .
By their fruits you will know them.”

James says, and Jesus says,
if the fruit isn’t there, neither is the faith.

Today’s Gospel reading from Mark reveals,
in a fascinating way, Jesus’ wisdom about holiness.

Jesus was preaching and teaching in a religious environment—
first-century rabbinical Judaism—
that emphasized ritual purity, to an extreme.
They took the law of Moses, and cranked it up a notch. A big notch.

Jesus took a different tack with his disciples.
As a rabbi to his followers,
he allowed loose interpretation about eating,
and about the ritual washing required before eating,
but he set high standards on more weighty parts of the law,
like how we relate to enemies, and to the poor.

So other rabbis took Jesus to task in today’s reading from Mark 7.
“Why do your disciples not live according
to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
In answering, Jesus minced no words,
“You hypocrites . . . you hold to human tradition,
while you abandon the commandment of God.”
You think it’s what goes down your throat that defiles you.
No, it’s what comes out of your mouth,
it’s what starts in the human heart, with evil intentions,
and then gets expressed by evil deeds.”
And Jesus gave a laundry list of evil deeds,
from murder and adultery, to slander . . . and pride.
That’s what defiles the human being.
That’s what keeps people from living the full and free lives
their Creator intended.

That wisdom of Jesus, is almost the same image being reflected
in the wisdom of James.

In today’s text from James 1, vv. 26 and 27—
“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.”

You see, neither James nor Jesus had any problem with religion.
It was empty religion they took issue with.
Piety built in a vacuum.

In the wisdom of Jesus and James, it was absolute nonsense,
to speak of love for God,
or talk about the practice of religion,
when that love and that religion
was only private and internal,
and did not show up in how people lived their lives
and how they treated their neighbors and enemies,
how they acted toward the orphans and widows
and others in distress.

Another way of putting the point, in James’ words,
is that those who practice a pure religion,
are friends of God, and not friends of the world.
James talks in chapter 2 about Abraham being a “friend of God.”
And in chapter 4 he warns against friendship with the world.
I’m going to spend more time
with this concept of friendship with God,
in another sermon later in this series.
But for now, let me just say that, for James,
being a “friend of God” is obviously not
purely inward and private and mystical,
it’s not pulling back from the world.
No, it’s vintage James—it’s practical everyday theology.
James calls the church to practice friendship with God,
and to practice it before the watching world.

One way—maybe the primary way—we practice friendship with God,
is through our labor.
Our work.
And mind you, work is not equivalent to employment.
In these days, and in our own congregation,
there is the reality of unemployment, and underemployment.
Some of us know that all too well.
Either in the present, or in painful memories of the past.
And some of us ended our active wage-earning employment,
by choice, or by retirement.

But now, since tomorrow is
a day set aside by our nation to honor workers,
to celebrate laborers who contribute their time and effort
and talents, for the benefit of society,
we are making space in our worship to honor Godly work,
and those who do this work.

Good and honest work is a gift of God.
The writer of Ecclesiastes says, in ch. 5, v. 18,
“[And all who] accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—
this is the gift of God.”
In this sense, work is not the opposite of grace.
Work is grace.
Sounds kind of like James.

And the writer of Psalm 127 also reinforces the message of James.
“Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.”

If we cannot see God in our labors,
we are laboring in vain.
We should not have to look hard to find God in our work.

Work is intertwined with grace,
and grace is intertwined with work.
They are not opposites.
They are partners wedded together in this thing called life.
Life itself is a gift that we don’t deserve.
Life comes from the gracious hand of God.
So the work we do is acting out our “thank you” to God.
The ability to work is God’s gift of grace.
The work itself is our act of gratitude.

Our work, whether it’s tilling soil,
or teaching students,
or constructing buildings,
or generating capital,
or serving food,
or mowing grass,
or pricing used clothing and books,
or visiting the sick,
or taking someone to the dentist,
or balancing books,
or preaching sermons,
our work is a response to God’s grace,
done in the service of God’s kingdom.

If we cannot see the work that we do—
whether paid or un-paid—
as contributing, even in some small way,
to the reign of God on this earth,
then we ought to stop what we’re doing,
and choose work that does.

Otherwise, we are guilty of doing what James talked about,
deceiving ourselves, by being hearers of the word,
but not doers.

Of course, our society values some jobs more than others.
How much our work is valued, in eyes of society,
is often reflected in the amount of pay we get for the work,
or the prestige that comes with the job.

God doesn’t look at it that way.
Every job we do—paid or unpaid,
ditch-digging or corporate decision-making—
is an opportunity to offer a gift to God,
in the way we carry out our work,
in the way we relate to our co-workers,
or in what our work produces.
Every job we do should be offered to God as a gift,
in gratitude for the gifts of God given to us.

As James said,
“Every good gift comes from above.”
If it’s good, God is in it.
If our work is good work,
if it contributes to the larger good of the world,
if it is consistent with God’s purposes for creation,
then God is in it.
So when we give our labor, it’s an act of worship.

And now, in an ritual of offering and blessing,
we will worship God with our gifts of work

If you were here last Sunday, or saw the bulletin or email,
you were expecting this.
But if not, that’s fine.

Some of you came, as invited, in your work clothes,
however you defined that,
so that’s part of your symbolic offering of your work.

But all of us are also invited to offer a tangible symbol or artifact,
that represents the work we do.
If you came prepared with this symbol or artifact, great.
If not, that’s okay.
You might have something on you, or in a pocket or purse,
that represents what you do throughout the week,
whether paid, volunteer,
or labor at home or in the neighborhood.
Are you a writer? bring a pen.
Do you fix things, bring a needle and thread.
Bring a business card, calendar, smart phone,
whatever you require to carry out your calling
as a worker in God’s Kingdom.

Dig in your pocket or purse, and find what you have,
or what you brought,
and bring it to one of these front tables as an offering.
If the tables fill up, put them on the steps or the floor.

After you bring it,
we will sing a song of blessing,
and have a prayer of dedication over these symbols of our labor.

And if your gift is something you will need again,
to continue your work,
you may come up after the service,
and pick up your dedicated item.

Before we come, let’s pray.

Lord, today we release what we have, and what we do,
and place them in your hands as an act of gratitude.
as a thanksgiving offering for the free and lavish grace
that you give to us every day.
Take all these gifts,
and use them for the work of your kingdom on earth.
We dedicate them to your service.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

—Phil Kniss, September 2, 2012

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