A Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20 – Year B –23 September 2012 – RCL
John Edward Miller, Rector
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
– James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Martin Luther had a great appetite for Scripture, but he couldn’t stomach the Letter of James. So, on his own authority, the famous Protestant Reformer expelled it from his New Testament canon, calling it an “epistle of straw.” The reason for Luther’s antipathy toward James was that the letter seems to support works rather than faith in God’s grace as the basis of salvation.
Luther’s whole approach to reform was focused on Paul’s teaching that we are saved by grace through faith. For Martin Luther, that is the lens through which a Christian looks at life. This is what it allows us to see: we have no capacity in ourselves to save ourselves, and there is nothing that we can do to earn God’s favor. So, the emphasis on “doing” in the Letter of James struck Luther as subversive. He stressed that no amount of works can qualify us for eternal life. It is God’s love alone, a love that is free and unconditional, that does the gracious work of saving us. Any other emphasis is counterproductive and dangerously wrong. Luther loathed the Letter of James, which boldly states “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Therefore he used his sharp scissors to excise the Letter of James from the Bible, gladly tossing its pages to the wind.
And that is too bad, because the epistle contains too much good to be deleted. Obviously, I’m not the only one who thinks Luther’s attitude was over the edge, because the letter remains in the New Testament. And it still speaks to us, offering important guidance as faith forms and executes plans of action. Our brothers and sisters at St. James Baptist Church on Blair Road, and at St. James’s on Franklin Street, are inspired regularly by their patron saint. In fact, our Episcopal siblings have the text, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only,” inscribed on its sacred architecture, and have www.doers.org as their website address. These are statements affirming what the letter has to offer all of us. They are evidence of an active, engaged congregation, whose works are based on a sense of gratitude instead of a self-serving hunger for merit.
The Letter of James contains a collection of epigrams – proverbs – designed to guide the people of his target audience on the path of life. The content of the letter has also been described as hortatory, meaning that it urges the reader to pay attention and to turn faith into deeds of action. One commentator notes that, “there are about sixty imperatives in the letter’s one hundred and eight verses.” It’s clear that James wants to get the show on the road, religiously speaking. Thus he cranks up and unleashes a bevy of advice to new Christians. Sometimes he speaks in the indicative, stating important truths; otherwise, he issues imperatives, expecting his hearers to sit up and take notice. Either way, though, he is offering the people proverbs, wisdom sayings. These offer practical guidance to enable people to lead a decent, successful Christian life. They summarize the experience of a wise observer of what works toward that end, and what doesn’t.
If you’re wondering about the origin of proverbs, it might help to know that they are not always religious. Most in fact are secular sayings, such as these familiar English proverbs: A watched pot never boils; A stitch in time saves nine; Too many cooks spoil the stew; If the shoe fits, wear it; Practice makes perfect; People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones; Absence makes the heart grow fonder; The fruit does not fall far from the tree; and, If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
Yet from the biblical book of Proverbs come many memorable verses, including: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction;” and “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent.”
One of my very favorites is attributed to Virginia’s 9th Bishop, The Right Reverend Frederick Deane Goodwin, who advised new clergy: “Don’t try to exercise any influence until you have some.” That was good advice from a wise man. Too bad way too many zealots haven’t heeded his sage counsel.
All of these sayings express a time-tested truth. They are pearls of wisdom aimed at addressing life issues – some mundane, others spiritual, and still others problematic.
In today’s selection from the letter, James confronts a serious problem with godly wisdom. His target is behavior that’s, shall we say, inappropriate. You might even call it atrocious, because all manner of malicious deeds were being committed among the people to whom he was writing. The community was in chaos. We know this because James cites envy and ambition, boasting and lying, partiality and hypocrisy as the causes of conflict. Rampant disorder was giving rise to covetousness, disputes, conflicts, and murder. These problems were bad, but what was worse is that they were happening within the church.
And we think that the Episcopal Church has had its problems! James’s people, who called themselves Christian, were breaking bad in ways that make our recent controversies pale in comparison. It’s okay to take heart in that. Things have been much worse, and the church abides.
What did James have to say about these things? Well, quite a lot – especially proverbs like “Faith without works is dead,” and “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Those bits of inspired wisdom echo an older Latin proverb that calls for “Deeds, not words.” James’s version was from a faith perspective, though. He was not just a pragmatist looking for facts; he was a disciple of Jesus committed to action. He urged the people to practice what they say they believe. Anyone can claim to be a Christian. But if there is no evidence of a changed life, what difference does a Christian label make to anyone? James knew that the answer is “nothing.” It would be like being given a brand new Rolls Royce, but never putting the key in the ignition, and putting it in gear. After a while the gift would become a rusting relic in the garage.
However, James won’t stand for a waste of grace. He summons the people to an action plan based on Christian virtue. He calls for wisdom and understanding, gentleness, mercy, and peace. With these attitudes in place, he remains confident that, with God’s help, chaos can be put in order, and devilishness be put to flight. Resolve can unplug self-centeredness; a grateful heart can overcome the temptation to gratify the whims of the restless self. James is not writing empty words, nor is he coining pious platitudes. He earnestly believes that real faith must translate into action; it can do no less and still be authentic.
Thus James sums up with a proverbial imperative. He says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”
That may strike the untamed cynic as a conditional (if-then) proposition. It sounds like a “let’s make a deal” approach to an otherwise standoffish God who is aloof, removed from our existence, and out-of-touch with our situation. “Submit yourself to God” and “draw near” might imply that one needs to have the right religious formula to approach this absentee Lord. Reducing the distance between God and humankind might require some secret incantation. If someone is looking for faith to pay off, to give him leverage and clout in this life, then that is what wisdom promises. In this self-serving view, James’s urgent advice to his wayward sheep is like a business transaction – drawing near lures God in to do one’s bidding.
Such a notion operates on ego rather than gratitude. It profanes God’s loving purpose, and cheapens grace, but this notion is more prevalent than one might think.
In Woody Allen’s Manhattan, he plays the part of Isaac Davis, a television writer who is so disgusted with the low standards of audience intelligence and taste expected by network producers, that he quits his high paying job to protest. Then, he begins to understands what he has done digesting the impact of loss of income, standing, and popularity. Isaac bemoans his situation to his friend, Yale, who is more fair weather than faithful to him.
What did I do? I made a terrible mistake. For about ten seconds I was a big hero, and now it’s directly to unemployment.
If you need money, I’ll take care of it.
That’s not the point. I got enough for a year. If I live like Mahatma Gandhi, I’m fine. My accountant says I did this at a very bad time. My stocks are down. I’m cash poor or something. I got no cash flow. I’m not liquid, something’s not flowing. They got a language all their own.
We discussed this. It’s difficult to live here without a big income.
Yeah, plus I got two alimonies and child support. You know, I gotta cut down. I’ll have to give up my apartment. I’m not gonna be able to play tennis, pick checks up at dinner, or take the Southampton house.
Plus I’ll probably have to give my parents less money. It’ll kill my father. He’s not gonna be able to get as good a seat in the synagogue. He’ll be in the back, away from God, far from the action.
Away from God, far from the action. That’s not just a line in comedy, that’s a reference to what many people think about the purpose of faith. It’s a reflection of what is commonly expected of God, who is thought to be more like the Wizard of Oz than the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. This god is the omnicompetent deity who rescues, bails out, protects, and promotes the special interests of, people who have the inside track. To be chummy with this god is to have access to advantage. It is like having a debit card on an account that cannot be depleted. At least, that’s what the popular conception is, until someone tries to use that card and gets denied. Then there’s frustration, disappointment and anger about feeling betrayed by the fantastic god who is supposed to be there when we need him.
But that god doesn’t exist. Thank God. If that deity did exist, somewhere over the rainbow way up high, then faith would be all about jockeying for position, seeking personal privileges, and invoking magical power to secure one’s own life at the expense of others. But it’s not about any of those things. Having faith in the God made manifest in Jesus Christ is to trust that unconditional love is what he offers us. That love is not an entitlement; it is a gift – pure, unbounded, and freely given by the only one who can afford to give it to us. God’s love is not a special favor that we have to lobby for; it is a gift that transforms us, even though we lack the right stuff to transform ourselves. And yet, James is right: we can collaborate with the process of change if we come toward one another with openness and trust.
This past summer I finally agreed to take a trip that my son John has been urging me to take for many years. Having lived and worked in Los Angeles during and after college, John is a veteran of several cross-country drives. I had often heard him describe the experience of seeing the breadth of the United States unfold through the windshield of his Volvo. He loved seeing the scenery change from Virginia to California. It gave him the opportunity to think and to dream and to remember.
I heard him. And I knew that he wanted me to join him on a father-son journey. That part mattered a lot to me. That he wanted me with him, and was willing to become not only a co-driver, but a roommate and constant companion for two weeks, was a stunning offer – one that I could not, and would not, refuse. So, on August 3, we drove our rented Subaru out of Richmond and headed west.
Along the way, John and I saw many sights, and heard Neil Young in concert at Red Rocks, and had many good meals, and listened to many tunes on our iPods, and photographed and filmed the changing landscape from coast to coast. It was a fabulous time, an irreplaceable time, and very likely, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for us to be together 24/7 for fourteen uninterrupted days on the road. I call that grace. And grace affected us both.
Talking together in a car that’s in motion is a rare opportunity for getting real, and staying real, for sustained periods of time. If you’ve tried it, then you know what I’m talking about. The driver and the navigator are facing forward, observing the road ahead. Face-to-face talking is put on hold. However, there is something about sitting side-by-side, and talking. Maybe it’s akin to a confession booth, since there’s a “screen” of space separating the speaker and the listener. And that’s just enough distance between the conversing partners to take the intensity down a notch or two. I’m not completely sure about the format, or the dynamics of cross-country conversation, but something great happened on that trip.
John and I grew closer than ever. Each of us took turns talking and listening. Each alternated drawing close to the other in trust and openness. And in the process, we realized that geography, and time, and circumstances separating us disappeared. We experienced an ease of talking that transcended the father-son relationship. In that intimate bond, we were able to say things that we’d needed to say, but hadn’t, for 14 years. We spoke of loss and sadness, as well as disappointment and anger. But what is more, we shared visions of joy and hope and love. Both of us are going through significant transitions, and speaking of those changes in the context of acceptance of one another, we ended our journey with a palpable sense of being transformed.
I thank God for John’s understanding that we both needed that time together. And I believe that we experienced what James commended so powerfully to his readership. God was in that car. The evidence is that we drew nearer to him as we drew nearer to each other. Each of us has grown; each of us is changed. That, I believe, is what submitting ourselves to love accomplishes in this life. God is always there, seeking to heal, forgive, and redeem us. Our task is to pay attention, and to recognize the goodness of what God offers, and to enjoy his love forever. Amen.