14th Pentecost; 9/2/12. U. Christian
Ps. 15; Js. 1:17-27; Mk. 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Grace and peace to you from our God who creates, redeems, and sustains us all. Amen.
Before I was ordained and for some of my early years of ministry, I spent time in men’s groups where we shared what it was like to be a man. Later I spent time leading men’s retreats. One of the most common perspectives we shared was how we men were both defined by others and by ourselves by what we do. Usually this meant what profession we were in, although at times the sharing extended to what we were good at, those things we did or could do that reached that vaulted plateau of being “handmade.” But mostly, it was what we did for our livelihood. For me, being ordained sort of changed a lot of what others expected me to say. “Oh yeah, Bill is ordained,…” and that alone in the view of those listening seemed to say it all.
When I moved to Washington state, I became interested in helping to end homelessness, mostly because of a conference held in 2001 at St. Mark’s Cathedral. It took 6 months for someone to phone me about the “I am willing to volunteer” card I turned in at that first event. When I came to the first meeting with many men and a few women, all were asked to tell people our name and to what we were connected. As I listened to people go around the room, most if not all had connections, an organization they were a part of, be it a congregation or a nonprofit, and many had business cards they started to circulate. Finally my turn came. I said my name, and had to explain it’s hyphenated. I realized I needed an affiliation, and as yet I had not joined any local congregation. I was Lutheran clergy but I was what Lutherans call “Off Roster,” which meant I was a lay person who happened to be ordained. Rather than explain all that, I simply said, “I am here representing All Lutherans Everywhere, which I call ALE for short, so I expect a lot of fellow members.” It’s true this said little about who I was and what I did, but maybe what said the most about me is that I was there. I was at a meeting, in fact the first meeting, of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, in December 2001. Now I am its Director, business cards and all, even if my business cards are handmade at home. And oh yes, next month we’ll have our 12th Conference.
We know this book of James before us today. He’s the one who urges us to be doers. He writes, “…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.” He goes on, “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..”
While I am now very glad to be clergy in the UCC, this last section of this text reminds me of Martin Luther, who also used the image of the mirror. Luther did not like James since he thought it conflicted with his and what he declared as Paul’s view as to not having to earn grace. But Luther did say seeing ourselves in a mirror is the role the law plays…. Allowing us to truly see ourselves and to change by driving us to the Gospel.
We live life with these mirrors. Sometimes the mirror is a room full of strangers who came for the same reason I did but who one by one were complete strangers to me, but we had one thing in common driving us to be the people God asks us to be. Not people who merely hear, but people who do. One Pastor describes in comment on today’s James text how in his childhood as a Southern Baptist he would come to church and right away have to fill out the 6-point record envelope in the pew. First he put his name and his offering amount, and then there were 6 boxes, asking for a check mark about worship attended, Bible brought, Bible read daily, Sunday school lesson studied, prayer daily, and gave an offering. He said before long people would sort of escalate some of the conditions informally, like, “You see that? They don’t have Bibles. Must be Presbyterians!” He said even how large the Bible was soon became worthy of judgmental comment.
Later in his youth this Pastor says he met the Book of James, whom he never really noticed hiding back in that Bible behind Paul. When James asked him about his faith he proudly showed him the envelope with check marks in all the boxes. “Six out of six!” he wrote. But he said James laughed, and said, “I think you need some new boxes on that envelope.” James mentions “care for orphans and widows in distress,” and the young man who’d later be a Presbyterian Pastor said, “There were no boxes for them” on the 6-point record system envelopes. He could make a handmade report but in truth it was worthless.
He writes, “James even goes as far as to say that religion without action is ‘worthless.’ ” He thought back to his childhood, and learning to love the word as he did was not something that he felt was worthless, but he writes, “I needed James to teach me to do the word, to take it out to a hurting world.” And then he writes what I measure as one of the most profound sentences I have read in a long time. He writes, “Apparently, then, it’s not about whether you’ve brought your Bible, but about where your Bible has brought you.”
Mark’s Gospel has Jesus quoting Isaiah, who said, “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.” Then Jesus adds, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” The commentary isn’t absolutely clear as to the “commandment of God” to which Jesus refers, although for me Jesus always lifts the greatest commandment, love God, love neighbor as self. And no matter how we try to make it about words, it is about actions, about what we do, those things we do with our hands.
I recently finished one book from the long list of what’s been suggested I read. It’s by Robin Meyers, a pastor in the UCC, titled, “Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus.” Needless to say, the author of the Book of James would mostly nod approval. Meyers says that too often most of us are part of “a church that caters to the individual soul and individual success, rather than building the beloved community...” Meyers decries what he calls “the 1-way transaction shaped as the belief that God sent Jesus solely to purchase our salvation with his death.” His are tough words because from our youth we have all been raised to believe this – that Jesus may have said some really great things while alive but it is only his death and resurrection that matter in the end -- raised to believe this as if it is core to our very salvation. We’ve been taught all too often that what we do as people of faith, in living our own faith, is icing on the cake. “Yeah, James is a curiosity to be sure, but not much else,” many of us might think. But then Meyer adds, “The best seats at the banquet mean nothing if at the final banquet God starts serving at the back of the line.” For most Christians, this is inconceivable. “My faith is handmade! It’s premium grade! How can this be?” we wonder.
Meyers adds, “Faith is something we do, against all odds, in loving defiance of a world gone mad.” Last week I met that world gone mad once again, but sadly, I meet it every week. Now 11 years after that first meeting when I declared I represented All Lutherans Everywhere, I heard a local TV commentator report that the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness “must have been written by people who drank the kool-aid thinking that they could end homelessness.” I suppose my wife saw the steam exit my ears when I was listening to that comment on the web, since my name is in that report as one of its authors. But I was reminded, since I was reading Meyer at the time, that faith is something I do against all odds. It is what those of us in that upper room at St. Mark’s Cathedral did 11 years ago in starting a Task Force to End Homelessness and calling it Interfaith, since we believed that people of faith were not just wrapped up in individual salvation and sought not just to check boxes but sought to address the harm that surrounds us. I was reminded by a Presbyterian Pastor of where my Bible has brought me.
I won’t name her, but she’s been living in her vehicle. We heard from her about 5 months ago. She called a colleague, but when we tried to follow-up, it was hard to reach her. She was at risk of losing her vehicle, and as it turns out, her place to sleep. Word came to us she’d flown back to the Midwest, and we thought, “Guess she isn’t as broke as we thought.” But then we got another call in August. She needed funds to get tabs and a license, without which she could lose her home. A nonprofit lawyer was helping. Our ITFH fund was now an appropriate fund, the one we keep to help mitigate harm to those living in their vehicles threatened by the Scofflaw law and/or losing their vehicle. When she called we set a day to meet, but I awaited another call before noon as to where and when. She had no phone, and so on that day I drove into Seattle, not sure where she was, thinking I’ll get a few other items of business done. She didn’t call. It was past noon by an hour. The frustration of our first efforts with her filled me, and I recalled how my colleague and I both thought, “should we help her? She seems so unrelentingly unreliable.” So I drove back home to Lynnwood. I went to the Fred Meyer and bought fruit. And as I got back into my car, she called. What could I do? What she needed was sitting beside me on my passenger seat,,,, a check from the ITFH. I went back, winding my way across Seattle to Sand Point, no less. OK, I cursed a little. “God? Come on!” We were to meet at a 7-11…. I parked. No sign of her. I get back into my car and see someone approaching from across the street, younger than I’d imagined. I stood and asked if it was her…she said yes. I said, “hope this helps, and I need to scoot. I’m a little late.” In truth, I was. I had afternoon obligations. She thanked me and I drove home not as happy as one might have expected.
About a week later my colleague and I got an email from this woman. In part it read,
I would like to thank you so very much for your financial assistance on obtaining tabs for my vehicle. I really needed the help and appreciate you all for making this happen. It has been helpful for me to have use of my car. Especially at this time for even being able to use it as shelter. I believe your assistance in helping me and others like myself is work not done in vain. May you all reap the benefits of giving yourselves in time and money be rewarded back into your lives.
Robin Meyer says, “what biblical justice does is restore what is denied, whether it’s freedom, human dignity, or the essentials of existence itself.” Sometimes in doing our faith, we are restored too.
There’s a story about a certain preacher serving a tiny rural mission among the poorest of the poor. The congregation had an Easter evening custom of baptisms by immersion in a nearby lake, and they’d gather afterward around a campfire where the newly baptized sat closest to the fire. Those members in the outer circle would make offers to the newcomers. “My name is… and if you ever need somebody to do washing and ironing…” “My name is… and if you ever need anybody to chop wood…” “My name is… and if you ever need anybody to babysit…” “My name is … and if you ever need anybody to repair your home..” “My name is…and if you ever need anybody to sit with the sick…” “My name is… and if you ever need a car to go to town…” Those inside the circle who had “died and risen to Christ” in Baptism were officially adopted. They ate, folks left, the lay leader kicked the fire out and said to the preacher, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.” Now Fred Craddock became a very well-known preacher and preaching professor. Years later he told his students, “Once, when I told this story to a group of city folks, they looked amused, but confused. One of them said, ‘Fred, what do they call that where you come from?’ Craddock replied, ‘I don’t know what you call it where you come from. But where I come from we call it…church.’ ”
“Apparently, then, it’s not about whether you’ve brought your Bible, but about where your Bible has brought you.” It’s about where your bible has brought all of you. Where, indeed…..
And now may the peace of God that passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus and the people of God say. AMEN.