Seeking Congruency

September 2, 2018 (22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time/Proper 17)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

James 1:17-27

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

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

1:17 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. 18 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. 19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.21 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. 22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 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. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 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. (James 1:17-27, NRSV)

 

7:1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 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.) 5 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?” 6 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; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

 

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

 

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O Lord, source of beauty and depth of passion. We pray that you will strengthen and inspire us to do the word we hear and live the faith we confess. Amen.

 

The book of James is not very well-known. We don’t hear may sermons on James.  Some theologians don’t like the Book of James for various reasons, the great reformer, Martin Luther didn’t like the Book of James he even called it an epistle of straw.  What he meant is that it was easily consumed by fire and when the fire burned away you did not have anything left.  In other words, Martin Luther didn’t think the Book of James was pure Gospel.

 

Luther had a couple of reasons for his opinion, actually very valid reasons.  First, he didn’t like the Book of James because Jesus is only mentioned twice in the entire book.  Also, there is no mention of the cross, no mention of baptism or of grace.  Luther could not abide any part of the Gospel that did not include these essential tenets of the Christian Faith.

 

The second reason Luther didn’t like the Book of James is author’s emphasis on works.  Remember Luther began the Reformation because he believed that grace and grace alone saves us – not works or money.   He believed from the depths of his soul that works – no matter how good or well-intended do not save us.   The Book of James’ focus is on works (works righteousness), the importance of good works in the life of a Christian.  Luther could not tolerate James emphasis on works righteousness.

 

I quickly admit that I don’t have the theological chops to argue with Martin Luther, but I believe that there is a place of the Book of James in our faith.  While I firmly believe that our faith stands solely and completely on the grace of God, I believe that our faith must impact our attitudes and our actions.   How we live and how we act matters.    The Anglican Theologian A. K. M. Adam, states: “What James tells us: that we are to be quick to ‘hear,’ because not hearing enough leads us, apparently inevitably, to speech that is angry and unproductive. But hearing alone is not sufficient. We must also ‘do,’ because failing to act is evidence of a fundamental failure to function as God’s first fruits in the world.” [1]

 

In order to better comprehend this theological challenge, we find from the Book of James we need to better understand the context in which he wrote.  James is the brother of Jesus, so obviously he was influenced by his teachings.  After Jesus death and resurrection, James was called to be a disciple, a leader to a very small community of believers, a small congregation.  Apparently, it was the practice of this little church to give preferential treatment to the wealthy.   When a wealthy person came to worship, the ushers fell all over themselves greeting this them and welcoming them into the community.  Of course, this wealthy visitor was given a prominent place to sit and made over by all in attendance.  However, when a poor person showed up for worship, they were barely noticed and forced to stand in the back.  James abhorred this behavior.  He could not tolerate followers of Jesus acting like this.  So, he said, “No more!”  You cannot come to church and say these words of faith and then act differently.  Your words and actions must connect.  You cannot say you believe in Jesus and then treat people like that.    In this short little book of James, there are long sections about the problems James’ had with those who were all words and no action.  James stressed that words and actions must be connected specifically he states they must care for the widow and the orphan, the most vulnerable people of society.

 

James doesn’t stop there, he also goes after the Scribes and Pharisees. These where the faith leaders who knew every verse of scripture and every law in the book.  The Scribes and Pharisees believed that they were the embodiment of faith because they knew everything.   But, their knowledge did not impact their behavior, or their actions because as James pointed out they did not care for the widows, the prostitutes, the blind, the beggars, the hurting, the outsiders.  To James they did not want to get their hands dirty.  They believed, and they talked the talk, but to James they were just empty words because they did walk the walk.

 

Talking about dirty hands, Jesus speaks about dirty hands in our reading from the Gospel of Mark.  There were some Scribes and Pharisees who were upset at Jesus and his disciples because they didn’t wash their hands before they ate.  The Scribes and Pharisees were not concerned about hygiene, instead it had everything to do with keeping the laws and tradition of the faith.  The idea behind these laws was to be ritually clean to present yourself before God.  So, the Scribes and Pharisees were watching Jesus to try and catch him breaking the law and the second they saw him eat without washing his hands, they were all over it.  “Why do you disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?”

 

Jesus was not opposed to the rules, instead he is upset with the rationale the Scribes and Pharisees used for enforcing them.  Jesus saw how they were perverting them and he lets them have it.  The law had been put into place to draw people closer to God, but the Pharisees were using the law as an instrument of power and control, to define who was in and who is out.   Jesus can’t stand for this perversion.  Jesus tells them that it is what is in one’s heart which is what makes one clean or unclean, not one’s hands.

 

He is frustrated because the Pharisees and Scribes are missing the point.  While good hygiene is important, following the rules is a good thing, but we can scrub, and scrub and scrub and our hands will still be dirty.   Nobody has clean hands.  We all come to the table with dirty hands.  Remember how Pilate kept washing his hands when he was dealing when Jesus was on trial?  He kept washing and wringing his hands, but he couldn’t get them clean.  Neither can we.  Only God can do that.

 

The Pharisees were so worried about the rules, that they neglected their hearts, they neglected to make sure their words and action were connected.

 

I get that Martin Luther didn’t like that Jesus was not mentioned in the Book of James.  But on the other hand, isn’t it a lot better if someone has Jesus in their heart and goes out to live that way then if someone talks all the time about Jesus, and how much they love Jesus, but they don’t live that way?  I am going to choose the person who lives their faith in Jesus over the person who simply talks about Jesus.  St. Francis is credited with this powerful quote, “Preach the Gospel and when all else fails— use words.”  Or what Mary Jo Peters, a woman, in a small country church in Tennessee used to say, “You might be the only Bible some people will ever read.”[2]

 

I see these stories as a challenge.  A challenge to connect our words and our actions.  Do something tangible this week that illustrates your faith.  Get your hands even dirtier than they already are.

 

Go to one of the ministries in our community and see if you can help in any way.

Volunteer for IHN.

Write a check for a missionary.

Mow a neighbor’s lawn

Write a letter to someone who is grieving

Clean out your closet and take the clothes to Good Will

Come up with a new endeavor for our congregation

Pray, each day for the sick and the lonely and hurting.

 

Do something.  Find a way to put your faith in action.  Don’t do it because you expect some great reward.  Don’t do it because I said to.  Do it because we are called to connect our belief and our lives.  Do it and because believing in Jesus Christ means that we care about others and we want to help.

 

We won’t be blessed with recognition or promotion or accolades.  But, we will be blessed.  The blessing will come in the act of doing.   It will make our words real.   It will give our life meaning and authenticity.    Thanks be to God for the gift of grace.  Now may we go out and live it.   AMEN.

 

[1] A.K.M. Adam, Tutor in New Testament, St. Stephen’s House, Oxford University, Oxford, England, U. K. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2605

 

[2] Reverend Monnie, Normandy Presbyterian Church sermon September 2, 2012