September 6, 2015 – Faith at Work

Pentecost 15 September 6, 2015 Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-26

Faith at Work

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Happy Labor Day weekend, working saints. We’re observing this working person’s holiday weekend with James, the brother of Jesus, who by divine synchronicity, is teaching today on the theme of working faith. Telling us ‘take time off from work, every week, and get a three day weekend anytime you can – but don’t go to work ever without faith.’ (Don’t even get out of bed without working faith.)

Last week James was telling us about undivided faith. Being of one mind – faith and life not divided into areas of faith and areas of no faith. Now we’re moving on into chapter two of the undivided life – starting with treating all people with equal love and respect (not treating everyone identically, since we don’t have identical needs) – but showing no favoritism for the rich and powerful over the poor and the weak… (Favoritism for the poor doesn’t seem to be a big problem in most of human history.) And moving on now to having no divisions between what we say we believe… and how we actually live our lives.

James again sets the faith-bar high. And again he’s only walking in the footsteps of his brother Jesus. James reminds me here of my seminary New Testament professor, Rev. Dr. Abraham Smith, who used to tell us what his father told him: “Son, if you aim too low you’ll surely hit the mark.” James tells us to aim for perfection in faith, knowing full well we won’t get it right all the time. Because – when we aim for less than what Jesus teaches, we’re bound to achieve less than what Jesus asks… and expects of us…

I expect most of us will agree on the merits of what James is saying today. The substance of his sermon shouldn’t be controversial.

We may not always appreciate James’ rather blunt style of preaching. But we can assume his tone is related to the very real problems he’s addressing. Problems still with us, in virtually every age and culture. Then and now, some are treated more equally than others. Many still say one thing and do another. (Reminding me of my mother, telling me “do as we say, not as we do!” when I would ask ‘why can’t I smoke cigarettes? You and dad do.’ “Do as we say. Not as we do…” And if these were not real, indeed, pretty much universal issues, James wouldn’t be writing this letter. This was a while before the age of text messaging… Writing took a lot of effort – considerable time and money went into writing, copying, and delivering a letter in those days. Maybe James was getting a little cranky having to go to the trouble of writing? But regardless of any possible issues of style and tone –

When we get down to James’ main message – ‘faith without works is dead, and all God’s people deserve full respect’ – we should all be able to say amen to that. We know faith and works are both needed. We know there ought not be division between what we believe and what we do. We know Christian faith means taking care of the needs of those around us. We remember Jesus tells us when we feed or don’t feed the hungry, when we clothe or don’t clothe the naked, when we welcome (or fail to welcome) the stranger, when we visit the sick, the shut-in, the prisoner – whatever we do (or don’t do) for the least of these – we do for Jesus himself (Jesus tells us in Matthew 25).

And we remember how in Luke’s gospel (10) a teacher of the law asks Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus asks “what’s written in the law? What do you read there?” And the man quotes from the Shema prayer from Deuteronomy (6) that all Israel says every day, the prayer that begins – Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One…And the lawyer picks up midway in this Shema prayer, saying, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mindand you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (By this time rabbis and scholars of Israel were in the practice of combining the love God commandment from Deuteronomy 6 with the love your neighbor commandment from Leviticus 19…)      And Jesus says “Right answer. Do this and you will live.” But the lawyer, wanting to justify himself (we’re told), asks, “so who is my neighbor?” (Like I’ve obviously got to be able to pick and choose…) And Jesus tells a story of a priest, and a Levite deputy priest, traveling the Jericho Road, who both see a man wounded and bleeding, lying in the road… and both pass by without stopping… But a Samaritan – a foreigner… Stops and cares for the wounded man, at considerable cost to himself in time and money…And instead of answering the question “who is my neighbor?” – Jesus asks, “which of these do you think acted like a neighbor?”

And the teacher of the law replies, “the one who showed mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

And James clearly expects all those he’s addressing to remember – Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One… As he reminds us ‘even the demons believe God is One… and shake in their boots.’ Reminding us also – we know the royal law, the law of God’s kingdom. The law of liberty, the law of love.

We know what we ought to do most of the time. (But…) We also know – doing the right thing will often cost us, like it cost the Samaritan, more time, more talents, more treasure than we were probably planning on. And I confess, I’m usually more timid than I ought to be in proclaiming this aspect of the gospel…

James is not timid. He cuts right to the chase, going the full disclosure route – reminding us faith can indeed be costly – reminding us of Abraham, called God’s friend in scripture, who, even when tested far beyond most people’s maximum limits, still steps out in faith (Genesis 22)… Reminding us also of Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who welcomed the Hebrew spies in the city of Jericho and helped them escape at the risk of her life (Joshua 2). (Some of us may have a hard time relating to Abraham, the faithful patriarch, whose faith is notoriously just-about-perfect. So James also gives us the example of Rahab, the prostitute, whose faith at work was also counted as righteousness, to let us know the way of faith at work is open to all.) And again James is reminding us of the cost of discipleship… whoever we are, wherever we’re coming from. Reminding us again of his brother Jesus, saying, ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ (If we have a problem with what James is saying – blame it on brother Jesus.)

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(Well, that’s the hard part today…) My article in our last newsletter thanks all of you as the church together for your works of faith and your faith at work… I mean all that… I do believe by God’s grace we’re doing many things well, much of the time here… But…. reading James all week I am realizing…

There’s always an element of risk when we try to self-evaluate. If we assess ourselves too easily, we easily wind up excusing things we ought not excuse…And wind up slipping down the slippery-slope of low and lower-still expectations…

If on the other hand, we assess ourselves too harshly, we’re likely to become discouraged and lose hope. Dorothy Day talked about “the duty of delight” – the need to show joy in following Jesus. This too is the work of all the church.

One reason Jesus calls us to be the church together, not alone, is because God gives us different spiritual gifts and graces, different natural talents, by design. So together we can see, hear, and discern far more wisely than any of us can alone. We need to practice assessing the fruits of faith together, listening to every voice, aspiring to a perfect blend of realism and hope.

In that spirit – (I’ll say again–) I think we’re doing pretty well at treating every one equitably. At least virtually all visitors and new comers I speak with and hear from report being warmly welcomed… And I can’t remember anyone saying the contrary… But we also know… hospitality neither starts nor ends at the doors of the church… And the faith-work of being God’s people doesn’t start or stop at the church doors… or even take any holidays…Our faith is to be at work, seven-twenty-four-three-sixty-five…

And as I review my own behaviors… over the course of this lifetime (so far)… As I now begin to see, better than I could…I realize more often than I did, that I have sometimes (usually unconsciously) treated some people more politely or attentively than others… There have been and still are times when I’ve been too quick to think I know another person’s heart or mind… Times when I think I’m being fair to everyone, when, looking again, now, with more perspective, I realize I wasn’t… or I’m not…

Once in a while I actually figure this out on my own… More often it happens with help from others, who call my attention to things I’ve missed seeing, hearing, noticing. God works through people, like this, most of the time… Helping one another discern direction and progress in our walk of faith…Helping each other believe and express our faith in our work together is how we fulfill the royal law of love. This is the way of God’s kingdom…

And I know I’m blessed, and we’re blessed, here together… in all the struggles and joys of being the body of Christ, doing the work of faith, together, by grace, in this place…

So let’s keep asking God to show us the way forward – what we’re doing well, by grace…What needs to change, by grace…How to get there from here by the grace of God…

Let’s keep listening…to God and one another, always…

And sing our thanks and praise to the One… who calls and equips us to live our faith together just as Jesus teaches and tells us to do…. Encouraged by the working faith of all the saints in all times and places. For together we are the body of Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.