Monday, February 23, 2015

Lent 1B Series: #MakingFaithMatter

NB: Click here to listen to the audio.

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

The one question I always ask myself when preparing a sermon is, “So what?” meaning, “What does this have to do with anything?” 

All this study and thought might be fun, in a nerdy sort of what way, interesting to dig into the layers of meaning of scripture, and apply fine points of doctrine to come up with a unique interpretation of the bible passage.

Yes, Paul is quoting Isaiah out of context. Interesting.

Yes, John is channeling Genesis at the beginning of his gospel. Sure that helps provide deeper insight.

Yes, Mary’s song is a ripped off from Hanna’s song. Curious.

But there comes a point when I have to wake up from out of my intellectual stupor, and ask where the passage hits people in their lives. I ask, “So what?”

I’m guessing that you do to. Most people wonder what faith actually looks like, what it actually does, what impact it has on people’s lives and the world.

That’s probably why you’re here. You sing songs. You pray prayers. You greet one another. You listen politely to what comes from this pulpit. And I’m guessing that in the back of your mind, you’re asking, “So what? How does this apply to me? How does this impact my life? What does this mean for me?”

Those are fair questions. Questions that Lutherans have been shy to ask, until recently. And that shyness, that hesitation, come from a fight that Martin Luther, our father in the faith from whom we get name “Lutheran,” had with this scripture passage.

“Be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.”

 Many Lutherans hate the letter of James. In fact, Martin Luther once said that the letter of James was made out 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 James 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 after 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’ 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, teaching and preaching 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, and not in a good way. “To make sure they got off their butts and did something for Jesus.” I worried for his listeners.

I worried because I remember when I was in university and enduring a “get up off your butt and do something for Jesus” 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 you might respond the same way: “I work 50 hours a week, one kid has swimming lessons while the other has piano. I’m a Stephen Minister, 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 Jesus 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 passage 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 Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.

The religious leaders weren’t worried about the “ick” factor of not washing their hands before eating. They were upset because Jesus’ disciples – this supposedly great rabbi 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.

James was placing practical love for neighbour and care for others at the centre of their life together, because they already knew how to worship. He just wanted them to take the next step. He was asking his people for their faith to find its feet, because their faith was already strong in their hearts. He was telling his followers that faith is something you DO, not just something you believe or something you feel.

But for those who might have gotten the wrong idea, and jumped off the other end and made good works a requirement for faith, James also reminds them that everything, every act of giving, every gift received, is from God, offered freely. That’s why you do good works, because God loves you. Not get God to love you.

You do good works BECAUSE you have faith, not to receive faith. You care for others because that’s who you are. You help hurting people because that’s what you faith tells you to do.

That’s why you’ll never get a “get off your butt and do something for Jesus” sermon from me. Because it’s bad 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’ letter.

While Luther confronted abuses within the church, and offered a much needed corrective against church leaders who were more interested in power and control rather than love and forgiveness, the legacy he left was that good works were looked upon with suspicion, and the full content of our faith was personal piety; prayer, bible reading, and going to church.

But we have a saviour who healed the sick and raised the dead. We follow a messiah who confronted abusive powers. We bear the name of the one who was deeply immersed in human suffering and had the temerity to believe that he could do something about it.

He did all this because he had to. He had no choice. He had no choice but to reach out to those who were in pain. He had not choice but to love those who were abandoned by the rest of the world. He had no choice but to bring life to a world that was dying.

He had no choice because that’s who is was. And that’s who we are because we have his name stamped on our foreheads, that’s who we are because we have our names written in his book of life, that’s who we are because we have been joined to his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

And because we bear the name “Christian” we have been given an opportunity, we have been given an opportunity to change the world in Jesus’ name by living out what we have been freely given.

We have been given an opportunity to be a ray of sun to those struggling in the darkness.

We have been given an opportunity to be a healing presence in our community, known for our care, and not for the financial challenges of another church body.

We have been given an opportunity to tell a different story from the story we usually hear; a story of life and abundance, a story mercy and justice, a story of peace and reconciliation, a story of love and care.

And I think we’ve taken that challenge seriously.

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.

That’s why we’ve made a change here at First Lutheran. We’ve changed First Lutheran Church’s slogan from “Living Jesus Inside Out” to “Making Faith Matter.”

This change is to signify a renewed emphasis on the practical side of the faith, our ambition to make our presence felt more deeply in our community, to show others that the business we do in here, makes an impact in what you do out there.

So, for my time with and among you, I want us to focus on the DOING of the faith. 

I want us to get our hands dirty by having a stronger presence in the community. I want us to be known by our love as we live our faith in the workplace. I want us to be ambassadors for Christ in how we care for those who need our help. I want us to be beacons of light and agents hope at home.

I want us to be known for Making Faith Matter, in our lives and in our community.

And we’re off to an excellent start. We already have important ministries that impact others in Jesus’ name. I want us to build on the solid foundation that has been established by your hard work.

Stephen Ministry is being revived, with four people beginning their training. Stephen Ministry being the one-on-one caring ministry that helps people through challenges and crises, by being a listening ear and caring heart.

Inn From the Cold provides food and shelter for those who have no home.

Ladies’ Time Out offers women a chance to fellowship with each other.

Confirmation Class has service project requirements to put feet on the faith that the students will be confirming.

Small groups have a missional component to their gatherings, where they engage in some action that benefits others.

Youth group, which is being re-imagined, will have a strong faith-action connection, to reinforce the notion that faith is to be LIVED.

And we will be building on the strength of what we’re already doing. We will be making faith matter.

Also, those of you on social media, I want us to take over the hashtag #MakingFaithMatter, I want that hashtag to be connected with us, to celebrate the ways we are impacting our world in Jesus’ name, and to invite others into the conversation, and into our life together as we live out our faith in practical ways.

So be doers of the word and not merely hearers. Keep doing what you’re doing, and even more so. Be generous. Be compassionate. 

Let’s celebrate our successes. Let’s build on the good things that are happening. Let First Lutheran Church be known in our community for #MakingFaithMatter.

May this be so among us. Amen

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