Gustav landed early morning on September 1, 2008 as a category two hurricane in Cocodrie, Louisiana, after ravaging Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba and other islands. Gustafson was responsible for 153 lives lost. $6.6 billion in damage. $4.3 billion in the US.
Later that month, Haiti and Cuba were devastated again by Hurricane Ike, which eventually landed in Galveston on September 13, 2008. Ike was responsible for 195 deaths, and $25 billion in damage.
Gustav landed early morning on September 1, 2008 as a category two hurricane in Cocodrie, Louisiana, after ravaging Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba and other islands. Gustafson was responsible for 153 lives lost. $6.6 billion in damage. $4.3 billion in the US.
I began the morning by visiting the memorial site of fallen Deputy Goforth, in Cypress, Texas, to offer a prayer. There I greeted another deputy, and spoke briefly with an NBC reporter who approached me. I was surprised to see people there so early.
From there I headed to Living Word in Katy to preach at 8, 9:30 and 11. Then to Hope Beasley for a congregational consultation. Finally, back to Living Word for their building dedication.
44-year veteran Pastor Steve Quill in his office.
hausted youth ministry staff celebrate just having trained 75 children and youth leaders this afternoon.
Nice digs, and much needed space for their school of 200-kids.
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 – Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.
Isaiah 35:4-7 – Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not be afraid.” He will come and save you.
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 – Don’t show favoritism to the rich. Faith without works is dead.
Mark 7:24-37 – Syrophoenecian woman’s daughter.
Is Your Faith Alive?
Last week we embarked upon a five-week series on James. Those of you doing the Five Practices will only have four weeks for this, so choose which of the texts your congregation needs the most:
- Listening: James 1:17-27
- Works: James 2:1-17
- Tame the tongue: James 3:1-12
- Conflict: James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
- Healing: James 5:13-20
Here is this week’s text in its entirety:
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
There are two basic parts to this text. First, the concern for the economic disparity and second, faith and works.
Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus makes it clear that Jesus was deeply concerned about poverty, and in particular, the way the rich treat the poor. The Matthean beatitudes say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke’s Jesus puts it simply, “Blessed are the poor.” All of this reflects the earlier prophets’ admonitions, like Isaiah 58:6-7:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
What should we do with a church that doesn’t share its bread with the hungry? This may have been James’ concern. What do we do with a society that treats the poor with distain? I have heard the poor in our society called freeloaders, moochers, lazy, leeches, and so on. Programs for the poor, which make up less than 2% of the federal budget, are routinely called “entitlement programs,” clearly made up because the poor feel they’re entitled to an unearned handout. The rich pundits stir up animosity towards the poor with phrases like, “You make it. They take it.”
This simplistic understanding of our economic realities is beneath us. We live in one of the wealthiest societies the world has ever known. How we treat our poor in this so-called Christian nation, will be a testament to us. If you want to encapsulate some of Jesus’ edgy teaching, Luke’s “Woe to you rich” starts to get at it.
James pulls no punches. If you treat someone in poor clothes with less respect, you clearly do not know the God who loves all people. Robert Gundry, in his commentary, translates it, “a gold-ringed man in lustrous clothing.” If you treat the rich person in Armani, driving a Lexus, with greater deference, you shame yourself. James is spelling it out. Will our people be able to hear this? Read it slowly.
“But you have dishonored the poor.” “You’ve made discriminatory judgments among yourselves,” says Gundry. And he acknowledges something we seem to have trouble admitting: the rich oppress the poor. “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7s it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” This is pretty moralistic stuff. If you hit them with this, they will need a way through. Fortunately, there is one.
Faith and Works
Generosity is the antidote to materialism. Just as the Feeding of the Five Thousand began with a little boy sharing his lunch, our turn around can begin with generosity. But where does generosity come from? We were told last week. All good gifts, like generosity, come from above, from the Father of Lights. God is the source of all generosity. Seek God, and the Spirit will grow generosity within you.
The faith versus works tension is a straw dog. The two go together like heat and fire. Apple trees produce apples. People of faith produce good works.
Robert Gundry says, “James denies the benefit of someone’s claiming then to have faith if he doesn’t have good works to authenticate his claim. Faith works to authenticate his claim.”
In February of 1520, before he had been excommunicated, Luther’s old friend Spalatin reminded Luther he had promised to preach a sermon on good works. Luther’s enemies said that an emphasis on justification would result in a total neglect of good works. As Luther worked on it, the material grew beyond a sermon. Luther wrote Spalatin and told him it would be a small book or treatise. In Luther’s Works 44:21, we have this treatise.
Luther begins by saying the good works we are called to do are the Ten Commandments, not this ridiculous list of traditional, ritual, and cultural baggage. When the young man asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, Jesus puts before him the commandments. He then quotes John 6(:28-29) where Jesus says, “This is the good work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Jesus redefines good works as faith. Luther points out most preachers breeze past this important passage.
Praying, fasting, establishing endowments, leading a good life, paying taxes, showing up on time… these are all great things, but they go on apart from faith. Meanwhile, working hard at your job, respecting your fellow citizen, and taking care of your family seem to account for nothing among many religious leaders.
So, whatever is done in faith is good. Whatever is not done in faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Luther finds it strange that he is being labeled a heretic for saying this.
Works done without faith, are “false, pretentious, pharisaic good works.” Luther quotes Augustine, who says the works of the first commandment, having no other gods, are faith, hope, and love. Luther points out that most people in his day considered the works of the first commandment to be dressing up, going to church, singing, praying, reading, playing the organ, bowing, kneeling, and praying the rosary. These are all good and can be a blessing when done in faith. If, however, they are done without faith, they become an attempt to prove ourselves, earn our way to God, and deceive ourselves. We set them up as an idol. God cannot tolerate this, Luther says. Grace is free.
When the church leads people to think they are made right with God by their good works, it is subterfuge. We dupe people into thinking this is spirituality. We allow them to believe they are close to God if they do good things. Meanwhile, they are missing out on something huge.
Luther makes it clear he is not forbidding good works. They are a blessing to all. But if we do them because the church commands it, we have missed the point.
The thrust of Luther’s Treatise on Good Works is to move us away from the dogged religion of the law, to a religion of faith, love, and the Spirit. He does not want to do away with works. He simply recognizes that they come from faith. If they come from a misguided notion that we are earning our righteousness, they too easily become self-righteousness and can actually work against our relationship with God, rather than toward it.
What is the Good News?
The Good News is that God in Christ has gracefully made our relationship right with God, through faith. Whoever puts their trust in God alone, has done the work of God. Whoever puts their trust in Christ, will find their body and mind pulled by the Spirit toward the work of God. You need not keep track. You need not add up your good works to ascertain if you have been good enough. That’s not how it works. Christ died to get us out of the sin accounting business and the good works accounting business. Turn your heart to Christ and see where that leads.
Congregations need to hear this more than ever. We live in a society that still values people by the amount of money they gave to this or that cause (regardless of how little a percentage of their income it is). We still live in a society that values people on how neat their house is, how well dressed they are, how outwardly religious they are. Who knows what their relationship with God is really like?
So away with self-righteous, pretentious shows of piety and religiosity. God is not impressed. As Jesus says, go to your closet and pray, give secretly. Do the good works that emerge from a heart of faith and not what will impress your neighbor.
Our people need to hear this. They need to hear that the fight between faith and works is a false dichotomy. It’s like asking if you’re burned by fire or by heat. This is an important distinction as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The faith/works thing often comes up. People will argue about whether we are saved by faith or works. This argument is a waste of time. Our theologians put this to bed in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by both the Lutheran and Catholic Churches in Augsburg, on October 31, 1999.
We can say with James, and all the faithful, “Faith without works is dead.” Of course it is.
Here’s how Luther put it.
And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. (LW 35:371)
Listen to that last part again: “Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.” That’s another one that’s worthy of a poster. Here you go…
Weeping may tarry for the night,
But joy comes in the morning.
It’s hard to believe it has been ten years. The 10th anniversary service of remembrance was held at the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orlean’s French Quarter. Mayor Landrieu spoke eloquently. Jesus said, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” Archbishop Aymond made it so.
It was fantastic to have Pastor Mike Stadie, Director of Lutheran Disaster Response with us, along with his wife Barb. We had a good showing of folks from many of our New Orleans parishes.
New Orleans has come a long way in ten years, with local cooperation, help from around the country, from federal funds and non-profits. Federal funds exceeded $120 billion, of which $76 billion came to Louisiana, three times Louisiana’s state budget. The recovery would not have been possible without the support of the whole country.
The work is not done. There are still many who remain in the margins. Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai reminded us we must continue and extend the work, so that all are fed, clothed, and housed.
The Rabbi told a story that hit home. A man and his son were clearing field, when the son came upon a large rock. “I’ll never be able to move that rock. It’s too large,” said the son. The father replied, “Yes, you can. If you use all your strength. So the son pushed and pushed, but the rock would not move. “Father,” the son said, “You told me I could move this rock.” The father replied, “You have not used all your strength my son, for you did not ask for my help.”
For everything there is a season.
Bethlehem Beaumont voted to close. They have sold their property to a growing Latino congregation. I was with them this morning for their penultimate service. 22 of us met in the chapel while the Latino congregation met in the Sanctuary. Any thanks to Pastor Mike Swink for serving them the last few years. Pastor Swink is now going into full-time hospice ministry.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 – My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 – Observe my statutes/ordinances as you enter the land. Teach it to your children.
James 1:17-27 – Be quick to listen, slow to speak. Giving. Slow to anger. Be doers of the word, not just hearers. Pure religion: Care for orphans and widows.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 – Jesus: It is not what goes in, but what comes out that defiles. Jesus eats with unwashed hands.
A Series on James
In the preface to his commentary on this coming Sunday’s gospel from Mark, Pastor Don Carlson pointed out that the second reading for the next five weeks comes from the Epistle of James (September 2, 2012). He suggested a possible five-week series on James. So, for the next five weeks I’m going to take up the challenge.
We just finished five weeks in John chapter 6 that included the Feeding of the 5000 and the “I am the bread of life” texts. We talked about the feeding story as a microcosm for the whole world, which is a hungry community as well, even though that we know there is plenty of food for everyone on the planet. The miracle begins with a little boy sharing his lunch. Then Jesus says, “Do not strive for food the perishes, but for the food that indoors to eternal life.” Don’t just strive to satisfy your physical hunger. Strive for food that will satisfy your spiritual hunger. Or, as Jesus says in Matthew, don’t worry about food and clothing seek first the kingdom of God. Finally Jesus reveals that he is the bread of life. If you want to find true life, eternal life, follow him. “Eat of his flesh.” It’s such a striking comment that he loses some of his disciples over it. That will happen you know. Eat the food that endures to eternal life. What is eternal life? It is spelled out in John 17:3: “This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
It will be perhaps a bit jarring to move from John’s Christological rhetoric, to the epistle of James, which doesn’t teach anything about Christ. Unlike the synoptic Gospels, John is not as much interested in how to be a disciple as proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God. James is less interested in proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, but he gives advice on how to live a moral life in his current time and context. I’ll come back to this in a minute, when I take up Luther’s preface to James and Jude, but for now keep in mind that you will have to be intentional about breathing gospel into these sermons if you take up James.
One other caveat: quite a few of our congregations are doing the Five Practices starting on September 27. If you are using James as a bridge between John 6 and the Five Practices, you will only be able to do four of the five passages of James. Pick and choose what your congregation needs the most. I would have a hard time leaving off James 5 on healing. For those who don’t use the lectionary as strictly, these next five blog posts on James could make a five-week series any time of the year.
So let’s jump in. First, some background: James is the 20th book in the New Testament. The author claims to be simply “James.” There are a number of James’ mentioned in early Christianity: James the brother of John and son of Zebedee, James, son of Alpheus (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 12:6-16, Acts 1:13), James the Less (Mark 15:40) and James the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55-56). Paul mentions seeing James, “the Lord’s brother” when he went to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:19). The “brothers of the Lord” are also mentioned (along with their wives) in addition to the apostles in 1 Corinthians 9:5.
So which James wrote this? The fact is we don’t know. It could be any one of them. The author simply says, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Most modern scholars believe it is a pseudonym, a pen name, like Samuel Clemens writing as Mark Twain. What further complicates things is James the son of Alpheus and James the Less could be the same person. Tradition held James the Less to be the author.
The epistle is in the form of a letter, though somewhat chaotically organized, but it appears not to be an actual letter to an actual church, but rather more of a general sermon. It is written to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion.”
The first manuscripts we have of the Epistle of James date to the middle of the third century. The Greek is polished; therefore, modern scholars doubt it was written by a Jerusalemite Jew. Others suggest it may have been polished up later, but, historically, editors were reluctant to polish anything they believed to be apostolic. Origen, born in AD 184, quotes and mentions James, and there is an uncited quote in Irenaeus (b. 130) that could possibly be from James. The content of the letter suggests a 1st or 2nd century context. It did not appear in the earliest versions of the Bible, but was approved as canonical in the 4th century. Below is a 12th century Byzantine-style text on parchment.
Eusebius, in The Ecclesiastical History (II, xxiii, 25), said, “Such is the story of James, whose is said to be the first of the Epistles called Catholic. It is to be observed that its authenticity is denied, since few of the ancients quote it, as is also the case with the Epistle called Jude’s.”
Luther was well aware that there had been some controversy over whether to include James. He understood that the apostleship of this author was a big question. On top of this, James negates Paul’s theology of justification by grace through faith. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) Luther stand squarely with Paul and his theology of justification on this matter.
I’m not easily finding Luther’s Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude (1522, 1546) online, so for those who don’t have Luther’s works, I’m going to quote some passages so you can get a feel for what he’s saying. Non-Lutherans should keep in mind that Lutherans do not consider Luther’s writings to be authoritative, on the level of Scripture, or even the Lutheran Confessions, but rather texts worthy of study as all teachers in the church.
Luther begins his Preface on James by saying, “Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God. However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle…”
More quotes from The Preface to the Epistle of St. James and St. Jude (LW 35):
In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works…
In the second place its purpose is to teach Christians, but in all this long teaching it does not once mention the Passion, the resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ. He names Christ several times; however he teaches nothing about him, but only speaks of general faith in God.
And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate [teach, German “treiben”] Christ. For all the Scriptures show us Christ, Romans 3[:21]; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, I Corinthians 2[:2]. Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it.
We see in this last passage, that Luther is no Bible fundamentalist. The Bible is a gospel book for him. When it speaks law we should ignore it, even if it comes from St. Peter or St. Paul. So, when Paul talks about what people should wear in church or how long their hair should be, Christians are not bound by these things. They can be interesting and instructive to understand how Christianity was lived out in one culture and time.
In his more general Preface to the New Testament, Luther says,
Just as the Old Testament is a book in which are written God’s laws and commandments, together with the history of those who kept and of those who did not keep them, so the New Testament is a book in which are written the gospel and the promises of God, together with the history of those who believe and of those who do not believe them.
For Luther, the New Testament is about gospel, not law. The gospel is that which preaches the good news of grace in Christ. “Do not make a Book of Moses out of Christ,” Luther says. No doubt there are many Lutherans who have returned to a legalistic understanding of religion, and would find Luther’s ideas bothersome.
The gospel does not demand adherence to the law according to Luther. It only demands faith in Christ. The apostles do not demand we give to the poor, they “entreat” and “beg.” “Moses compels, threatens, strikes and rebukes terribly,” says Luther.
Continuing from the Preface to the New Testament (LW 35):
That is what Christ meant when at the last he gave no other commandment than love, by which men were to know who were his disciples [John 13:34–35] and true believers. For where works and love do not break forth, there faith is not right, the gospel does not yet take hold, and Christ is not rightly known. See, then, that you so approach the books of the New Testament as to learn to read them in this way.
Luther likes John and Romans best, because they have the highest gospel content.
In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. But more of this in the other prefaces.
One last quote, from The Preface to the Epistle of St. James and St. Jude. Continuing to question the apostolicity of James, Luther even begins to sound like a modern scholar:
Moreover he cites the sayings of St. Peter [in 5:20]: “Love covers a multitude of sins” [I Pet. 4:8], and again [in 4:10], “Humble yourselves under the hand of God” [I Pet. 5:6]; also the saying of St. Paul in Galatians 5[:17], “The Spirit lusteth against envy.” And yet, in point of time, St. James was put to death by Herod [Acts 12:2] in Jerusalem, before St. Peter. So it seems that [this author] came long after St. Peter and St. Paul.
In a word, he [the author of James] wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love.
The above paragraph exemplifies the theology upon which I landed in my own study of the Bible, Patristics, and scholars. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Loving God and neighbor are the greatest commandments. The law has no power to save.
Interestingly, James 2:24 does not appear in our lectionary. “Faith without works is dead” does however, next week, in James 2:1-17. I will save my comments on this important passage for next week.
That’s a lot of background. Let’s get to our first text, James 1:17-27.
Here is the second reading in its entirety:
Every 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. In 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.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Robert Gundry calls James a “manual of Christian conduct that assumes a foundation of faith.” This comes from his Commentary on James, in Baker Academic’s Commentary on the New Testament Books, copyright 2010. Gundry is solid. You can get the Kindle version of this commentary for $1.99 right now on Amazon. Gunrdy is a retired, octogenarian, Baptist professor of New Testament and Koine Greek. He got his PhD from Manchester University, where he worked under F. F. Bruce. His scholarly commentaries on Matthew and Mark are outstanding. This inexpensive commentary might be a nice addition to your library if you are considering doing a sermon series or study on James.
Gifts from the Father of Lights
The first two verses of this lesson are the end of the previous section. Even with his emphasis on good works, James recognizes that all good gifts around us, come from heaven above. The “Father of lights” may mean the father of the sun, moon and stars. Calling God “Father” hearkens back to Jesus’ prayer, “Our Father…” God is a loving father, yet transcendent.
We are the first fruits of his creatures. Jesus is the new creation. When the church lives in him, we are a new humanity, characterized not by hatred, greed, and malice, but by generosity and love.
Quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to anger.
When we read this, we have to wonder: What happened? Even though this is a general letter, it seems to respond to some kind of problem. Perhaps there has been some anger in the church over divisions. Early church divisions over Jewish and Greek polarities are well documented in the New Testament. Anger does not produce God’s righteousness, James says. “Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” Be doers of this word, not just hearers. I believe James is worried about what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” Christianity as a philosophical idea rather than a way of life. The preacher might challenge the congregation. Is Christianity a nifty idea, or is it a way of life? If it is a way of life, what kind of life is it? James would say it looks like being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Being meek, generous and active in doing the word.
In verse 26 he even takes it up a notch. If you think you are religious and do not bridle your tongue, you are deceiving yourself. Your religion is worthless. Here is James’ definition of pure religion. Perhaps this would be worth printing on a large poster and putting on the wall during this series:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
– James 1:27
Where does caring for orphans fit into your congregation’s mission and vision? What’s your engagement strategy? Perhaps you might have someone come from Upbring, the new Lutheran Social Services. Their mission statement on the webpage is about ending child abuse. Their work encompasses adoption, foster care, residential care centers, and more. What’s your strategy for caring for widows and widowers in distress as a congregation? How will you remain unstained by the world? How can we, as Paul puts it, be in the world, but not of it? How can we live into a Micah 6:8 vision for a world of generosity, meekness, and kindness that cares for orphans and widows?
Where is the Good News in this message?
Perhaps the framers of the lectionary included the first two verses in this text in order to give us a hint of the good news. The good news creeps in at the beginning. All goodness and generosity comes from God. We believe and teach that good works are not a human invention, but are a gift from God, the Father of lights, built into the very fabric of the universe.
Generosity is not a human invention. I’ve seen it in animals. Love is not a human invention; it is built into the fabric of creation. We don’t need to self-generate these things. We can tap into them by being in relationship with God.
Here is where we must import the larger thrust of Christian theology. Jesus is the door, the path, the source from which we tap into the Father of lights. The God is the immanent reality that reveals to us the transcendent direction of the universe. The Holy Spirit then helps us in our weakness, by filling us with the gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. You don’t have to run around doing good works to justify your goodness, or to prove to God you are a doer of the word. Just love God and neighbor and see where that takes you. As Luther insinuated above, let us not harp on the law, but inspire people to love.
Open the newspaper. If we love fully, how do we engage the immigrant? What would Jesus do? If we love the world as God so loved the world, how would we respond to a hungry world? If we love fully, how do we respond to the spiritually hungry world in front of us? What does it look like to respond to the family of Sandra Bland with love and compassion?
If generosity is a gift from God above, what does that mean for how we spend our salaries? What does it mean for how we budget the collection of our tithes and offerings for the coming year? On what shall we spend our bounty?
What does it mean for us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger? What if all dialog, all moral deliberation began not with pronouncements, but with listening? I believe every congregation needs to do a deep strategic planning process every two or three years, to keep us always reforming, always renewing. That mission planning should always begin with listening. We call it the Tune-in process. It begins with the three great listenings: Listen to God. Listen to the community. Listen to the congregation. Before we plan, before we speak, we must begin by listening to God, one another and the community around us.
If we are going to be doers of the word and not just hearers, if we put the good news of the gospel into action, what kind of action does this suggest?
I wonder how we invite the congregation to wrestle with these questions and not, as preachers, offer either the standard, status quo answers, or our pet answers. How do we invite each person to listen for the movement of the Spirit in their life, and honor that?
Don’t let these texts become a passing ship in the night, another nice devotional that is forgotten the moment people leave. Take it seriously. Let it impact your mission, vision and strategic planning.
“There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are…
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust…”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail