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.


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