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Pentecost 14B – September 2, 2012

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 – Observe my statutes/ordinances as you enter the land. Teach it to your children.

Psalm 15 – Do not lend money at interest. LORD, who may dwell in your tabernacle? (Ps. 15:1)

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.

During this five Sunday month we get a five Sunday survey of the Letter of James – which Martin Luther at one time dubbed “an epistle of straw” in his original 1522 preface to James and Jude. Luther notwithstanding, this might provide a good opportunity to do a month long series on “Living Together as Disciples of Jesus.” Allow me a brief digression.

1081.jpgA great read is Christian Origins: A People’s History of Christianity, Volume I, edited by Richard Horsley; “our own” Dr. Ray Pickett at LSTC is one of the contributors. The insightful “Introduction” to the volume and series can be read here. It is helpful, as the introduction states, to understand Christian origins from the point of view of ordinary people rather than that of the elite. To quote:

“The task before us is to explore the ways in which ordinary people whose lives were determined by the Roman imperial order formed communities and movements that spread and expanded into a significant historical force in late antiquity.”

When ordinary people joined an early Christian community, they were not primarily opting for a theology that they found to be “better” or “more attractive.” In switching communities they were joining a way of doing life together that they found more appealing, helpful, and hopeful. Of course, the Christian community way of life together was rooted in and grew out of a theology and messiah/king quite different from the imperial theology and messiah/king that ordered most of their everyday lives; but it was the different way of doing life together that was attractive.

I don’t believe that the early Christian community had any illusions that it could transform or overthrow imperial theology and its consequent social structures; but it certainly envisioned a way of doing a different kingdom life in the midst of the ongoing imperial kingdom – a different way of living together in this world while awaiting the world to come. And I also believe that this is especially important to remember during what is an increasingly polarized election year. There IS a way of doing life together that is neither Democratic nor Republican; both of which are imperial.

All of this is important to congregations – Christian communities. What is it about our life together – rooted in and growing out of the messiah Jesus we follow – that people might find more appealing, helpful, and hopeful than the American imperial (to use our context) way of life? Can we offer a different and hopeful way of doing life together in Jesus’ name? Do we offer a different way? I believe these are important questions.

And so, I think a sermon series on life together based upon these texts from James would be a useful undertaking. And, if I were in the parish I would probably supplement it with a study/discussion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. Much of Bonhoeffer’s material reflects the admonitions of James’. Take, for example, his section on “the ministry of holding one’s tongue.”

1082.jpg“Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words. It is certain that the spirit of self-justification can be overcome only by the Spirit of grace; nevertheless, isolated thoughts of judgment can be curbed and smothered by never allowing them the right to be uttered, except as a confession of sin, which we shall discuss later. He who holds his tongue in check controls both mind and body (James 3:2ff). Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him…”

Now, there’s a truly counter-cultural way of doing life together in a society that encourages people blurt out, broadcast, blog, tweet, and post every stray thought!

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak…” Bonhoeffer on listening:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life…”

More on James and life together as we move through September. If it’s too late to get a sermon series underway, try it during the five Wednesdays of Lent sometime. Life Together has five sections! Let’s move on – and back to – Mark. (Finally!)

In my posting for Pentecost 3B, I wrote,

Mark’s Gospel has an interesting structure. Along with some teaching and travel narrative, the first 8 chapters are crammed full of examples of Jesus’ power and authority: demons are cast out, people are healed, storms are calmed, crowds are fed, and a girl is raised from the dead. After all that, Jesus asks, “What’s the word on the street? Who do people say that I am?” Peter gives the right answer, “You are the Messiah.” And then Jesus tells them to tell no one. And the rest of the Gospel is about Jesus telling his disciples what’s going to happen to him in Jerusalem: the same thing that happened to thousands outside the walls of Jerusalem. And Jesus teaches them what it will mean to follow a crucified Messiah: “Take up your cross and follow. Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We are now edging up on that “hinge question” that Jesus asked at Caesarea Philippi; Pentecost 16B, September 16th. Jesus teaching what it will mean to follow a crucified messiah will then begin on Pentecost 17B, September 23rd. But before that we have this text on ritual purity, which is followed by next week’s text on the Syrophoenician woman; a text that is also, among other things, about purity.

As regards this text, the “Scissors and Paste Sub-committee of the Lectionary Task Force” has saved us from having to explain “Corban” or having any pulpit potty talk. The first excision – vs. 9-13 – is unfortunate because it illustrates Jesus’ point in quoting Isaiah: what appears to be going on and what is really going on may be quite different. “The emperor has no clothes.”

1083.jpgOr, to use an example from PBS, Hyacinth can say, “The Bouquet residence. The lady of the house speaking.” all she wants, but it’s still Bucket! Keeping up your parents is more important than keeping up appearances.

And the second excision is related. Bodily waste is foul and smells bad; but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. It comes out and heads down the drain. Human action that smells bad – vice list in vs. 21-23 – is something else. It comes out and fouls up life! Which is of greater concern?

When I was in the parish – both at St. Paul, La Grange and Zion, Houston – the senior high youth program usually had a “high adventure” component during the summer. I think I took about 20 back-packing or canoeing trips; at times mixed with a service project component. One of my favorite destinations was the BWCA in northern Minnesota through Wilderness Canoe Base or Camp Vermillion. Behold a “GL” – a USFS government latrine – in the BWCA:

1084.jpgIf you were lucky the GL was out in the open with a bit of a breeze (mosquitoes) and had a nice view. At first, most of the kiddos balked and held out as long as they could. However, the alimentary canal’s peristaltic motion being what it is, the “outcome” was never in doubt. They succumbed.

And as the days passed they let go of many other “niceties” as well. When you’re living in community out in the wilderness there’s a lot of “purity” that you simply can’t do – and you begin to realize that many things we spend lots of time and money on are nothing more than posturing and primping and really aren’t all that important. To quote Waylon and Willie, “Maybe it’s time we got back to the basics of love.” Or, if you need something a bit more highbrow, Henry David Thoreau:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

There is something of socio-economic spiritual snobbery in Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes. It’s relatively easy to observe all the ritual laws when you are a professional religious type hanging around the temple courts in Jerusalem. But what if you are a dirt poor peasant struggling to eke out a subsistence living in out of the way Capernaum? What does purity mean there and then? How can you be concerned about “cups and pots and vessels of bronze” when you barely have a pot to do you know what in? Does any of that kind of purity make any real difference at all? (There’s a sermon in there that will preach!)

What to preach? I think that I have stumbled across a connection between my musings on James and Mark. What does it mean for us a congregations – communities of faith – to be “doers of the word” and not just “hearers?” Aren’t we sometimes overly concerned about keeping up appearances and don’t we often spend an inordinate amount of time and money primping? Do our “rituals” have traction – do they have real meaning – in the lives of the blessed everyday people that surround us?

And how can we, as “insiders” in our congregations, help one another sort out what is really important as we follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem?

I believe that these are questions that our Lord would have us ask.

Until next week, be at peace.

Yours in Christ,Don Carlson, Assistant to Bishop Rinehart