Year B, Proper 17 August 30, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
The letter of St. James, according to one scholar, is “…‘the second voice of Jesus,’ reminding Christians that a faith that fails to bear fruit in the moral life cannot save.” If your faith doesn’t help you live more morally, then it is a waste of time… that is the point of the letter. Its source is very close to Jesus; it is likely based upon a sermon given in the mid 60s by St. James, the brother of our Lord. It was then probably fleshed out by someone else and circulated among the more Jewish Christians that followed the lead of the church in Jerusalem of which James was the leader. And it really takes up a central issue that Paul dwells upon as well: the idea of faith and works. Does it matter what we do? Does it matter what we believe? Well, according to two of the pillars of our faith, Sts. Paul and James, both do. And heavens, we have work to do on both fronts.
Our epistle and Gospel readings today are about how easy it is for us to maintain incompatible truths in our hearts and minds, how we can know one thing to be right and good and true and consistently do something else. Speaking (rather harshly) to the Pharisees, Jesus says, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘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.’” He was talking about dietary restrictions, and the Pharisees’ insistence on ritual purity while they ignore the darkness, the corruption, the distant-from-God sinfulness that lurks in all human hearts, manifesting too readily in Mark’s 12 naughty things, from fornication to folly. It is not the religion, the piety, the ritual doing that matters, it is who you are, how you are in the world that maters most. All of this, religion, all it does is help us on that path through connecting us with God and laying forth practices to help us be better then we would be otherwise.
I mean that happens all the time, right? We believe one thing, know something to be right and proceed to do the opposite? Sometimes in tremendous ways. The horror of sexual abuse by clergy… devout men doing tremendous evil, preying upon the most vulnerable from a position of deep trust AND at least a cognitive apprehension of right and wrong. They can’t say they didn’t now better. Or the violence of ISIL militants and American Klansmen beheading and lynching in the name of Allah and the God of Jesus respectively. They claim devotion to a God of Love but do all of that? And in much more benign ways, much, much more commonly: here we come to church, make our prayers, give our tithe and then slip back into maybe not murder or theft or even adultery, but meanness of spirit, gossip, being ungenerous or too easily annoyed with those we love or share a pew with or that so and so in the SUV that just cut you off. We have an amazing ability to genuinely hold close to our hearts our beliefs, our principles, our knowledge of right and wrong and then without a moment of hesitation doing the opposite.
This is another consequence of what we call original sin. Our ability to know one thing and choose to do the other. The knowledge of right and wrong and the ability to choose. Sometimes it is conscious. I have heard people, good liberal people even, talk about justice and living right and making conscious decisions but then when asked about their investment practices, if they invest in what, fossil fuels, companies associated with oppressive regimes, arms manufacturers, Monsanto, banks, whatever and the response is, “well, that’s business, that’s different.” No it is not.
Usually, though, it is unconscious. Mindless. We don’t even think about the evil that our 403(b) is perpetrating on the world, or the impact our beloved Nike shoes have on the workers in Vietnam, Indonesia and China where they moved the factories because of weak labor laws. We eat food made from GMO corn and/or soy or meat made of both and don’t remember the devastation heaped upon the soil, water, air and communities that produced that vacant food. I became an officer in the Marine Corps by my own choice. There was no draft in the late 80s. I didn’t do it even with the misguided notion that I was spreading freedom, democracy and the American way from the turret of my tank. They gave me a full ride scholarship to a very expensive university. I was in, not on principle, but for the adventure, the danger, the dress blues and the sword and the opportunities for my future that it promised (and delivered). I had no conception of the evil that I was perpetrating because I didn’t pay attention. I didn’t ask questions. I was mindlessness. It is epidemic. And it always has been.
So Moses offered a path, a set of practices given through him by God for how to live as we are supposed to. That is the Law. “…give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord… is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it.” He is telling them that in order to even live, to even get to the Promised Land that they must follow the law in its entirety. It was a whole program, live like that, live according to the will of God and you will be fine. Live in accordance with set rules given divine authority, agreed upon by the collective… do that and the entire community will be held in a matrix of accountability. It worked. For a couple of hundred years Israel lived by the law and thrived. That was the time of the Judges.
What the Law does is take the morality given by God and creates a framework of conduct, a Rule, a guide to the way we are supposed to live if we wish to be in right relationship with God and the creation. It is a framework of practice given by God, interpreted by people, and held in place by accountability to a community. It is a good way to do it; it gives us something beyond our own judgment and will to rely upon to live as we are supposed to.
It works. Monastic communities persist around the world based on strict rules and accountability, held together by those rules and systems of accountability. (It is not fool proof, there are still endless sins emanating from the most strictly observant monastics). But that is not our world. We are too dispersed. Too many distractions abound, we are not a cohesive enough people, we don’t live in close enough community, we couldn’t possibly agree on which rules emanate from God or which reflect a pet peeve of the vice-chair of the commandment committee, right? The Law of Moses that our Lord came not to replace but fulfill, that is not the answer for us today (though jubilee and prohibiting usury would be worth holding on to). No, our individualism, the stain of the enlightenment, won’t allow us to put our ourselves, our self-interest aside for the good of the whole even if it is for our own good. That will be the death of us…
No, an overarching rule or law won’t work. St. James knew this. He knew that as the Way of Jesus Christ grew and transformed, he knew that the way of his fathers wouldn’t translate into a pluralistic world, into the world of the gentiles. The Law wasn’t enough, it wouldn’t translate into the cultures of Egypt, and parts of Libya and Rome and Pamphylia and the rest of the nations represented at the Pentecost. Maybe not the fault of the Law, maybe not the fault of the cultures Christianity spread to, but was of a different time, a different place and a different people.
St. James offers another framework of practice, another framework of religion, another way to follow The Way that his beloved brother revealed to the world. For where Israel had the enclosedness of a definable people, a nation, we have Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh to bind us as brothers and sisters in God. James wrote, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care of orphans and widows I their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” This is the basis of his entire message, faith AND works. In this he offers us a formula of practice and accountability that really works, that really can work, that really can help us steer our hearts and minds and bodies to following the moral path that God has laid out for us.
“To keep oneself unstained by the world,” that’s the faith. It is keeping above the morass. Or when wading in it, as we always will, keeping true to our moral course even in the darkest valley or seediest corner of the world or when again, Suzie just won’t stop talking, and she goes on and on and on and your mind wanders to evil thoughts. You know exactly that feeling, or something akin to it, right?
But that’s the faith portion, keeping oneself unstained by the world. It is keeping the heart and mind clear and focused on what is holy and good. It encompasses knowing what is right, and the teachings that teach that, and the feelings that accompany that. Faith is the inside part.
But our faith in Jesus alone will not keep us moral. Our belief in Him, (if that is what faith means) or our trust in Him (which also might be what faith means), either one, it would seem, is not enough. How does the old Merle Haggard song go? “In spite of all my Sunday learning/For the bad I kept on turning and mama couldn’t hold me anymore.” Mama tried, the Sunday school teachers tried, but even that far too often isn’t enough. Our mindlessness, our ability to hold right and wrong separately in our heart and mind is there. Faith alone is not enough.
So a corrective, a way to help enact the moral lessons learned in faith is works. To wit James writes, “…care for orphans and widows in their distress…” That is not a call to specific outreach ministries, but it is a call to care, to care for those in distress. To act out your faith in the world. This makes your religion real: tangible, seeable, verifiable, accountable to friend and neighbor. Works bring what we hold in our hearts into the light of day. Mindlessly doing so brings sin, venial and otherwise to the surface, but linked to faith, linked to what you know and have been taught is right, works align your interior world with our exterior world, and we as human beings need that.
Of course plenty of us do all the good we can, live moral and upright lives away from the Church, away from religion, from formal systems of morals and ethics held in community. And plenty come to church and live reprehensible lives when they are not in the pews (and some even when they are). That is very true. But in my experience it is very, very hard to do the right thing, to make the right choices as incredibly frequently that choices between right and wrong creep up. Moment to moment, really. I need the help of Jesus Christ and the gift of His church and the path to God that He reveals. And these little helps, these gems from the like of St. James… they are gifts to the world and to ourselves. Take them in faith; work them out in the world. AMEN