Aug 29, 2021
The Rev. Dr. Sandy Selby
Faith Lutheran Church - August 29, 2021
We have spent the past five weeks talking about bread as we have walked through the sixth chapter—the longest chapter—in John's gospel. We began that journey with a story about God's generosity, God's abundance, God's grace made known through Jesus Christ—when 5,000 people were fed from just five loaves and two fish. Today, we hear another story about God's generosity, God's abundance, God's grace, and what that means for us as Christians. That lesson comes not from today's gospel reading from Mark but from the Letter of James.
I don't know how often Pastor Jean has preached about the Letter of James. Perhaps she's like the Lutheran Pastor Edward Marquart, who said that of the thousands of sermons he has preached during his more than 30 years in the ministry, only six have been based on the Letter of James. After all, Martin Luther called the Letter of James an "epistle of straw," a book that, in his opinion, shouldn't have been in the Bible in the first place!
For one thing, Luther didn't like James because, in its five chapters, Jesus is only mentioned twice. For another, he didn't like James because of its emphasis on works. Luther believed that through God's grace, we are justified, reconciled with God, not by works, but by faith alone. That belief was at the heart of his argument with the medieval Church, whose practices held that God's grace, and our salvation, could be bought through the purchase of Indulgences that would, according to the Church, guarantee eternal life. Luther, and many others that follow him today, look at the Letter of James and say, "that's works righteousness!"
Luther's condemnation of James was understandable, given his 16th-century context. But I'm inclined to give James some "grace." James' message is not so much about how we are saved—what we do to be brought into a right relationship with God—-but about the "so what?" of our salvation. James makes no mention of the afterlife, our eternal life with God. His entire message is about how we are to live as Christians, with integrity, in the here and now: with a particular kind of moral life and character, and with care for those who are most vulnerable in our society.
While James does not use the word "grace," his message is grounded in God's grace—God's generous love that is poured out for all creatures. Today's lesson begins with a message about, what John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of Methodism, called "prevenient grace"— the grace that goes before us and is around us, at all times, as God's generous gift to us, calling us to respond to God's gracious invitation to fullness of life. James writes, "17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures." In other words, God created us with love, for love, and God's grace is the generous and perfect gift within which we live, and move, and have our being as people created in God's image. Quite simply, our lives as Christians are about how we respond to God's generosity, God's abundance—-by living with generosity, grace, and gratitude, with a spirit of abundance.
There's a beautiful song from the 1970s musical Godspell that says it this way:
"All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
So thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love."
James says that Christians respond to God's gracious generosity by showing gracious generosity of our own: with strong personal character in the conduct of our lives, and with social outreach to others. James doesn't mince words when he says that religion that is not reflected in strong personal character is, and I quote, "worthless." The elements of personal character that he names stand over against today's prevailing culture. We are to "be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger" (1:19). That is part of the "so what" of having, James says, "implanted within us the word that has the power to save our souls."
But wait! Aren't we supposed to, as Matthew says at the end of his gospel, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that [Jesus] has commanded?" (Mt 28:19-20). "Not so fast!" says James. Making disciples, baptizing, and teaching are not the starting point for Christian witnesses. Before we rush out to speak and do, we need first to hear. We need to listen to the voice of God within us, and to the voices of others around us, to hear what is being said, and to discern how we are being called to serve God in Christian community, in the marketplace, and in civic life. "Be quick to listen," says James, "slow to speak." Choose our words thoughtfully and prayerfully. Be intentional about our way of being in the world. That is not easy to do, but it is what we can do when we have in our hearts a spirit of generosity, of abundance, of grace—a spirit that is God's gift to us all, through God's prevenient grace that goes before us, in all times and places. We simply need to be open to connecting with, and accepting, that grace.
And, James says, be "slow to anger." Note that he is not saying, "don't be angry, ever." Indeed, to truly care for those who are marginalized, we must be angry at the systemic injustice that causes and perpetuates oppression. Anger is, often, a necessary precursor to action. In his thoughtful book The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin, the Episcopal priest Garret Keizer writes, "Anger sometimes works like the first stage of a rocket. Without it, you'll have a hard time getting off the ground." Jesus modeled for us the constructive anger that will not allow anything to stand in the way of compassion and human dignity.
But there is also destructive anger. To extend Keizer's rocket analogy, "Without anger, you'll have a hard time getting off the ground. But if you cannot at some point let it go, it will only pull you back to the ground once its fuel is spent. You will rise a ways only to crash." Anger can smolder away within us, morphing into rage, often with destructive results.
"Be angry, but do not sin." says the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians, "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear" (Eph 4:29). In other words, one can be both angry and gracious. The key to making that happen is through kindness. A friend of mine says, "kindness makes anger do the right thing," and she's right. Kindness is one of the signature marks of good character.
Our personal conduct matters not as an end unto itself but because by being "quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger" we can be open to God's word for us, and God's guidance in how we are to be and to act in the confusing, changing, and anxious world around us. James tells us that when we are open to God's word that is "implanted" within us, we can get out of our preoccupation with ourselves to do the most sacred work there is, "to care for orphans and widows in their distress"—which, in a scriptural context, means those who are most vulnerable and most marginalized, work that to James is the mark of "religion that is pure and undefiled before God."
Martin Luther is right: it is by God's grace that we are reconciled to God. That having been said, James reminds us that there is a "so what?" to our salvation. If God is important to us, what difference does it make in the way we live? We have a choice in that. We can choose, with God's help, to be "quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger." We can choose "to care for orphans and widows in their distress." Or not.
I'm reminded of a story I once heard, and that I may already have told here. If so, I invite you to share in this story again:
A wise, elderly Cherokee man was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, "A fight is going on inside of me; it is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One wolf is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person, too." The children thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?" The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."
"The one you feed." So we're back to talking about bread, after all. Jesus said, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35). So Jesus, the bread of life, is God's gracious, generous gift to us, our daily sustenance in our lives as Christians. And the "so what" of all of that? The "so what" is that we serve God, as Jesus did, by being "quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger"—and by caring for those most in need, with generosity and grace.