September 9, 2018

Pentecost 16  September 9, 2018  Psalm 146, Isaiah 35:4-7, James 2:1-10, Mark 7:31-37   Faith at work

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Jesus comes into town and people bring a man to him who can neither hear nor speak, begging for some hands-on-help. Jesus takes him aside – puts his fingers in the man’s ears – spits and touches his tongue – says Eph-phatha – be opened – (the word sounds maybe like ears coming un-plugged). Now the man hears – speaks – and can be understood.  All in a day’s work for Jesus – who does this everyday. At least – up to now in Mark’s gospel that’s how it seems.

Crowds follow Jesus everywhere, seeking healing. Jesus teaches them about the kingdom of God, and demonstrates God’s power at work in the healing he does. Yet again and again people really don’t hear Jesus.

The prophet Isaiah foretold long ago – the ears of the deaf shall be opened, the speechless will sing for joy. Now Jesus makes it happen. Yet more than once we hear Jesus say “let anyone with ears to hear listen!” He also asks rhetorically “Do you have ears, yet fail to hear?” Half a dozen times we’re told his followers hear but don’t understand. Even his closest disciples don’t really hear Jesus. And as in John’s gospel, where every miracle is called a sign, and the sign always points to something more than the immediate miracle, so too here, Jesus is doing work that goes a lot deeper than ear and tongue surgery today.

And I can relate. Too often I only kind-of-sort-of-hear what Jesus says… I may be able to repeat back some of what he says… But until I’m hearing well enough to be doing what he says, Jesus and James both say – I’m really not hearing well at all. As James says – hearing the word of God without doing what God’s word says to do – isn’t really believing at all.

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Last week we were reading from the Song of Songs, a book that almost didn’t make it into the Old Testament part of the bible, mostly because it makes no direct mention of God, prayer, worship, or faith. The letter of James that we’re reading this week was one of the last books to be accepted into the New Testament – even though James, the brother of Jesus and the main leader of the Jerusalem church after Jesus is crucified does mention God, Christ, prayer, and faith, straightforwardly – and even though James restates much of the content of his brother Jesus’ sermon on the mount and sermon on the plain in language very close to what Jesus used.

James has been controversial from early days mostly because of what James says today about “faith without works is dead.” Which can sound almost like a no-brainer – except it also sounds like a pretty different theological emphasis from what we hear in some of the apostle Paul’s letters, Romans and Galatians, especially – where salvation is said to be by faith and grace alone, not by works. This apparently different theology in James troubled Martin Luther, the reformer of the 1500s, so much that he called James a (quote) “straw epistle” and put this letter in an appendix at the end of his translation of the bible into German, without listing it in his table of contents. Luther did say a few positive things about the letter and didn’t exclude it altogether from his translation, but he did brand it as second-class scripture. Something similar happened earlier in church history, as the church grew more Gentile, less Jewish, less and less connected to the prophets of Israel, in whose tradition James is deeply rooted.  So James made it into the bible, but only barely…

And maybe, just maybe…. James has also been controversial simply because, James is rather uncompromising – when it comes to rich and poor. James calls the rich “persecutors of the church” – and blames the whole church for what we now call profiling – treating people differently depending on appearances. Maintaining a double standard, with the rich treated better than the poor. And profiling can still be an issue for the church…At least theological profiling – anytime we sort people into categories and treat them differently – because of how we think they fit a particular profile. (Maybe – you look like a conservative – go sit over on the right. You look like a liberal – go sit on the left…) The specifics were different but probably profiling has always been a human tendency… even in antiquity…

Because… The differences in theology in the letters of James and Paul are actually not so very huge nor so very difficult to reconcile…Unless we’re looking for reasons to boost one or diminish the other. James and Paul both agree – faith and works are both essential. Elsewhere (in Acts 15) James, who presides over the first church general conference, makes theology of grace official church policy – declaring salvation of the Gentiles is by faith, not dependent on works of the law…

And Paul agrees – genuine faith is always expressed in good works (Ephesians 2) – and he pledges to always remember the needs of the poor (Galatians 2). Paul and James write to different parts of the church facing different situations. And as always with the New Testament letters, we’re reading someone else’s mail. We never know all the back story, but it seems James is writing to churches in danger of forgetting their own humble roots… as they now profile church attenders, directing some to the best seats in the house, telling others to go sit on the floor, based on appearances. (The practice of selling the best seats, pews actually – with second-and-third-best free seats left for the poor and visitors – only came to an end in our churches in the latter part of the 1800s. We still need to hear Jesus and James and be reminded…of our history… which can repeat itself…)

Our Methodist forefather John Wesley often lamented that the work ethic and habits of thrift that flourished with the spread of the early Methodist revival led so quickly to the poor becoming middle-class… and wanting more… Wesley saw the widespread poverty of first generation Methodism turn rapidly into second generation prosperity… First generation passion, love and zeal for God… giving way to second generation settling into pursuit of wealth, respectability, and status in the community… A familiar pattern in history…

When I was a bit younger and a little more idealistic, I liked to quote Jesus’ sermon on the plain (Luke 6) where he says– “Blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God…Blessed are you who hunger, for you will be filled…” – and –  “Woe to you rich, you’ve had your fun… Woe to you who are full now, you’ll be hungry…” Themes James learned from his brother Jesus and took to heart….Themes I thought I also took to heart…

Till I had a bit more money… and it became more difficult to imagine myself as in any sense poor… And – I imagine something a bit like this happened in the early church… When Jesus ascended to heaven, and the church now met in homes, and homes large enough to host church gatherings belonged to wealthier members of the congregation. After a few centuries the church began to own buildings… have salaried preachers, teachers… eventually musicians, custodians, bishops, district superintendents… bigger bills to pay… Stewardship campaigns… And…

We may still be familiar with the words of Jesus and James… but it’s hard now, not to be thinking of how much we appreciate the rich – who, we of course hope… will continue to give generously… And it can be tempting to leave brother James’ letter on the shelf, unopened… Next to Jesus’ sermon on the plain…

And I suppose because I can’t help noticing the temptations that come with prosperity…

I still try to preach from James… at least when he shows up in our lectionary every three years… As hopefully preventive medicine against slip-sliding into blessing paths of least-resistance Jesus and James so often and urgently warn against…

As a creature of habit I know I need a mix of reminding, prodding and encouraging to do all I should do…

And much like the very simple practice of cleaning my ears can be something I put off for a long time… Till my wife or my doctor tell me “your ears need cleaning…” So also – improving my spiritual hearing inevitably takes longer than it should… whenever I postpone and put it off…As I still can do… And I notice –

Hearing the word can still be difficult when I let myself get even a little out of practice… The word can seem louder and more demanding than I like to hear it… It can be hard to hear… when I know the Spirit’s reminding me of my failures… to live the faith the way Jesus and James talk about faith… Faith expressed in good works. Faith that helps others see, hear, believe and be part of the good news of Jesus Christ.

The work of faith can be difficult… Yet the work of faith for sure brings joy… As we share the living word of God – helping to interpret God, Jesus, and the church for others – helping to make known – God’s work is joyful work – work we do  together with God…Work all the more important today, because – not everyone has ever known – the joy of partaking in God’s work…

A recent survey of the so-called millenial generation says many younger workers now are actually having the goal of trying to retire in their thirties(!) – or early forties at the latest – with enough money to escape what they call “jobs from hell.” Doing work they hate for big bucks in hopes of escaping from work…

Of course there has always been work that’s unpleasant. But of course there’s also always been work that’s to love…  Work, where even when it’s difficult, the sense of purpose and meaning and blessing that comes with our work, when our work is God’s work…. is far greater than all our objections to work…

As we remember – Jesus doesn’t heal only our hearing – he also releases our tongues and gives us a voice for praising God. A voice to tell the goodness of God – the beauty of Christ – the joy of salvation…

And the more we truly hear the word of God – the voice of God – the more we really know the goodness of God… The more we know God is always saying… “I love you beyond all words – and I want to be with you always.”

And the more we hear God say I love you… the more we feel like singing for joy … like Isaiah said… So…

Why don’t we say –

Thanks be to God. (Amen.)

And let’s sing…

(Jesus Calls Us…)