Sunday, September 24, 2006

Pentecost 16 - Year B

“O, get out of here, kid! You’re getting in the way! People are trying to hear the preacher!” Simon snapped as he kicked young Joseph where the sun isn’t supposed to shine.

Joseph ran and hid behind a row of baskets usually filled with bread, but empty from lunch. His two friends were already waiting for him there.

“What were you doing out there?” Joseph’s friend Maria asked. “You could have gotten in BIG trouble, and taken US with you!”

“Shut up,” said Joseph, looking at his dusty toes.

“What’s that’s guy saying, anyway?” asked Jake, Joseph’s other friend hiding behind the baskets.

“I don’t know, I can’t hear when you’re talking so loudly,” Maria said, craning her neck to see over the baskets without being detected.

“Who cares, anyway? Let’s get outta here and find some food, I’m starving,” said Jake.

“Let’s wait ‘till everyone leaves,” said Joseph, “Then, hopefully, no one will see us.”

Remembering what happened to Benjamin, they decided to stay put. Their eyes grew dark as they summoned up that night when they heard Benjamin scream as his father reached for the knife. They remembered watching Benjamin’s dad dig the grave while his mother looked straight ahead into nothingness. They watched Benjamin’s father’s eyes, vacant of remorse or regret -or even anger – when his son died.

Benjamin got sick. He couldn’t work yet still had that great big mouth to feed. So he had to go. Simple as that.

Joseph, Maria, and Jake watched as Benjamin drew his last, blood bathed breath.

They had told each other this story countless times, not with words, but with their eyes. Benjamin’s death haunted their dreams and their waking eyes, because they knew that - at any moment – it could happen to them.

Each had their own story. Joseph’s dad was killed after the uprising when Caesar’s army murdered 50 men in retribution. Maria’s dad drank wine each night until he passed out, leaving her and her brother to wander the city looking for food. Jake’s dad treated him the way he was treated by his Roman boss: with hard words and an even harder fist.
Their moms weren’t treated any better than they were. Heaven help them if they couldn’t have children.

Survival was their world. Joseph, Jake, and Maria knew each day brought them closer to safety, the magic age of 13 when they were finally adults, finally receiving protection under the law. But before then, anything could happen to them. And it did. Think of Benjamin.

It’s hard to call people evil when it was just the way it was. Nobody taught them any differently. There was only so much food to go around. If you couldn’t work, nobody could take care of you. If you got into trouble they wouldn’t think twice about the harshest punishment.

Maria yelped as the baskets that were keeping them hidden suddenly disappeared. Looking up, Joseph’s eyes bore into preacher’s henchmen’s, whose furrowed brows reminded him of Benjamin’s dad’s. All angry men reminded him of that man because they could all do the same thing.

Jake tried to run. But a hand grabbed his collar and yanked him toward the crowd. He looked up, and there was the preacher standing in front of him. His eyes blazing.

Jake looked at the preacher’s hands. Hard, crackled skin. No blood under his fingernails.

The preacher knelt down, looked deeply into Jake’s red eyes before lifting the boy’s trembling body on to his lap as he sat down on a tree stump.

“Those who welcome this little child, welcomes me,” he said. “And not only that, whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

The disciples gasped. So did everyone else within earshot.

The preacher certainly wasn’t making it easy to be his follower.

First he says that a terrible death waits for anyone who becomes his follower. And he says that this is a GOOD thing!

If that’s not bad enough, he then has the temerity to say that they need to welcome children as they welcome him.

“Give me a break, preacher. That just isn’t practical,” a voice from the back said. “Children are tools.

“Also, they probably won’t live past age five so why would I want to get attached to them?” another blurted from the middle of the crowd.

“When an ox gets lame and can no longer plow the fields, we get rid of it. If a horse breaks its leg, it gets disposed of. If a child gets sick…”

The preacher brushed the hair away from Jake’s forehead, and again, looked deeply into his eyes. And without looking away from Jake, he said, “Whoever wants to be first, must be the servant of all.”

Jake’s eyes grew large. He leapt off of the preacher’s lap and ran away. Joseph and Maria quickly followed behind.

They ran to the outskirts of the city where they knew they were safe.

“What just happened there!?” Joseph asked, in between breaths.

“I dunno,” said Maria. “What do you think, Jake? Jake?”

Jake was quiet. He sat staring at his dusty toes.

“I’ve never heard preaching like that before,” Joseph said. “It’s like I heard them with my soul instead of my ears. I remember being at the synagogue and hearing the rabbi read from the scriptures, and thinking that’s what God must sound like. But today, I don’t think I heard what God sounds like. I think I heard God actually speak.”

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” said Maria, “Usually we get beaten to an inch of our lives when we sneak around and listen to the adults talk. But this guy wanted us to be there. He said that when big folks welcomed us – US – it was like welcoming him.”

“And also, he said that who wanted to be important – or big or great-, had to become like a servant - a slave. That doesn’t make any sense? Aren’t the biggest and brightest people the ones who are supposed to have servants and slaves? How is that supposed to work?”

“Maybe being great and being his follower are very different things, or at least the way we usually think of what it means to be great,” Jake wondered out loud. “When he put me on his lap, he looked at me the way no one else has in my entire life. He looked at me like I was worth something, like I was worth more than the fields that I plow or the fish that I catch. I’ve never been looked at like that before. No one has ever looked so deeply into my eyes. It was like he looked into my heart. And when he did that, everything bad about me seemed to disappear. No more shame. No more dirtiness. No more feelings of worthlessness. When I looked back in to his eyes I felt no fear. Only love.”

A tear ran down Jake’s cheek.

“If someone with a dirty old cloak, scraggly beard, and dusty shoes can make me feel loved and if he can make the world feel like that, than he really is great, despite what anyone else might say or do. And he makes me feel like we all can be just like him. Imagine that, a world where everyone loves each other and serves each other instead of fighting with one another.”

Joseph and Maria smiled at each other and at Jake.

“So, maybe greatness depends on how much we love, rather than how much we have,” said Jake. “Maybe that’s what that preacher was saying.”

As Jake turned around his heart jumped when he saw his dad hunched down with his arms stretched out. Jake stood still for a moment. Then reached for his father’s arms.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Pentecost 13 - Year B

“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers…”

Many Lutherans don’t like the letter of James. In fact, Martin Luther once said that the letter of James was made of straw, only good to help light his fire.

Inflammatory language about scripture, don’t you think? Wanting to rip out a whole book from the bible to use for kindling doesn’t quite have the reverence we attach to the reading and study – let alone, the application - of scripture.

As one who has been trained in the Lutheran theological method, I always need to reach for the Tums when I see passages from this book coming up in our Sunday readings.

“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers, lest you be deceived,” James sneers at us, waving his finger in our faces.

Those words stung Luther’s ears. He spent most of his formative years hunting for a God who loved him because all he heard at church was how much God demanded of him – and how God was furious with him for his failings.

All he heard, day after day, was how he wasn’t good enough, how he wasn’t doing enough, how much God was disappointed in his shabby attempts to be the good Christian he thought God wanted him to be.

But while studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther read these words, “…all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an atonement by his blood effective through faith.”

In other words, “stop trying so hard to get God to love you. Stop trying to work your way into heaven. God loves you and gave you Jesus. Jesus is your way into heaven.”

Luther was never the same after reading that. And neither was the church.

When Luther had to preach James’s letter where the apostle thunders at him “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers, lest you be deceived!” - Luther felt like he was back to square one. James assumed that Luther wasn’t doing enough for God. That all his studying and praying, parish ministry and teaching were not enough, and that he had to work even harder to prove he was the Christian he claimed to be. At least that’s the way that Luther heard it. No wonder he wanted to use the letter for kindling!

And that’s the way that many commentators and preachers hear it as well. I talked once with a pastor who said he loved this letter because to preach on it was his chance to “give it” to his congregation. “To make sure they got off their butts and did something for Jesus.” I worried for his listeners.

I remember when I was in university and enduring a “get up off your butt and do something” sermon based on this text, and thinking to myself, “I have six courses this term. I’m writing music for campus ministry, I lead a bible study, and I serve on the nominating committee for Laurier Christian Fellowship, what exactly am I not doing that you want me to do?”

And I think many other listeners would respond the same way: “I work 50 hours a week, one kid has swimming lessons while the other has piano. I volunteer at the Food Bank when I can and I coach my kid’s soccer team. I usher at church and sometimes run the sound board. There are only so many hours in the week. What exactly am I not doing that you want me to do?”

But I don’t think that’s what James was getting at. The church that James was writing to was really good at the “worship and study” piece of church life. They gathered in their holy huddles to pray and sing and study the bible. These are good things. But they didn’t know how to make the jump from worship and study to living and acting out what they learned.

James wanted them to bridge the gap between Sunday morning and Monday morning.

And I don’t hear James the way Luther did. I don’t hear James haranguing his church, because right there in the text he says, “…anger does not produce righteousness.” I think he was trying to be gentle with this group of young believers, giving them a soft nudge out of the nest.

He knew the danger of religious people secluding themselves away from the rest of the world because he was probably standing 5 feet away from Jesus when some of the religious leaders were hassling Jesus because his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating.

The religious leaders weren’t worried about the “ick” factor. They were upset because Jesus’ disciples – this supposedly great teacher from Galilee – ignored basic Jewish traditions.

Then Jesus reminds them and the crowd standing there that silly little traditions aren’t important, but how we live out the faith that’s inside of us. That’s what’s important. Losing sight of how God wants us to live is a consequence of being too removed from the world around us.

James was worried because he could see the same thing happening at his church. The congregation wasn’t able to see that living out the faith is just as important – perhaps even more important – than spending all their time praying and worshipping.

But James also reminds them that everything, every act of giving, every gift received, is from God, offered freely. That’s why we do good works, because God loves us.

That’s why you’ll never get a “get off your butt and do something” sermon from me. Because it’s not good theology, and it’s not what James is saying. I think Luther was wrong in his assessment of James. I think Luther couldn’t break out of his anger over the medieval church’s judgmental demands, demands which he read into James’s letter.

What I think James is saying is that we have an opportunity to change the world in Jesus’ name by living out what we have been freely given. And I think we’ve taken that challenge seriously.

The Stephen Ministers who spend tremendous time and energy with people in personal crisis through one-to-one caring relationships, the Creative Fingers group who make wonderful blankets and give them joyfully to those who need them, the ELW, the Church Council, the emerging ChristCare Group Leaders, the leadership teams that took our young people to Mexico and Winnipeg, the Nurturing the Faith and Vacation Bible School teachers and leaders, and all the workers doing their jobs behind the scenes to make sure our ministry thrives, reminding us that God is at work among us, transforming the world from within. It’s been profoundly inspiring for me to watch. It’s been even more inspiring to see how others are impacted.

We are, as James puts it, keeping our religion “pure and undefiled before God,” not by cloistering ourselves away so the stain of the world leaves no blemish. But by caring for others, by growing in love, by deepening our compassion.

So be doers of the word and not merely hearers. Do what you’re doing. Be generous. Be compassionate. Keep loving others as God loves you. And don’t forget, that all of these are gifts from God.

May this be so among us. Amen.