The Rev. Canon Stephen Huber
Our first reading this morning was from the Epistle of James. It’s one of the shorter letters in the Bible and we don’t often read from it in church. It was accepted as Scripture by the Church in Alexandria in the third century, by the Western Church in fourth century and the Syrian Church in the fifth century and its been part of the Bible ever since. But some scholars have wondered if it should even be part of what we call the New Testament. During the Reformation, Martin Luther was its sharpest critic calling it an “epistle of Straw with nothing more for Christians than a bundle of sticks.”
James’ letter, as we will hear over the next few weeks, is full of admonitions to do good works. “Be doers of the Word. What good is it my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” He admonishes the church to take care of the poor and the widows and not to be like the rest of the world and show partiality to those who are rich or are of important position. This sounds like just the kind of message we need hear more about in Washington! What good Christian would honestly take exception to such a message? Why all the controversy about this letter?
The fear is that James’ letter might be interpreted as contradicting one of the foundational theological concepts of the New Testament, St. Paul’s insight that by faith alone we are saved. Of course in the sixteenth century the Reformation was fought over this basic understanding of our relationship with God. Up against a church that had people thinking they could buy their way into heaven or at least lo off a few years of indebtedness through the purchase of indulgences, Martin Luther argued for justification by faith alone. God’s grace saves us despite what we do or don’t do. And of course St. Paul and Martin Luther were right. After all God is so big and we are so small. How silly, even arrogant, of us to think that somehow we’re in the driver’s seat about life beyond our mortality. Like the child plotting for a parent’s love, it is sometimes amusing to watch, but in the end always unnecessary because the parent’s love is unconditional.
But James challenges us to be doers of the word not because we think we’re striking a bargain with God, but because we are in love with God. Our “doing” is just the natural outpouring of our love affair with God. James is not trying to reverse Paul’s theology, rather he challenges all abuses of justification by grace. And smug, inactive, self-righteous religion is an abuse of our understanding of justification by faith. God invites us into partnership, not defined as quid pro quo, but by actions that emanate from a mutuality of abiding love. James challenges the church when it mirrors rather than confronts the unjust social arrangements in the surrounding culture. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” When we fail to love all our neighbors as ourselves, our professions of faith are empty.
He asks, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? 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?” There isn’t a lot here that is difficult to comprehend, and like generations of Christians before us, we know that James is talking to us this morning with his crystal clear “in-your-face” exhortations.
We’ve all heard that old saying, “I’d rather see a sermon, than hear one.” We come here on Sunday to hear the word of God, and to be nourished by the Eucharist not just for our own edification but for the strength and conviction to go forth from this place to be doers and proclaimers of the Word. We come here for the strength and conviction to live into our baptismal promises to strive for justice and peace among all people, to love neighbor as self, and to respect the dignity of every human being. By our baptism we promise to rise above the unjust social arrangements in the wider culture and to resist mirroring those injustices in our lives. We come here to hear the Word of God, so that we can go forth from this place to hear the cries of God’s people.
So James gets it right as well. But all of this is sure easier to hear about in a sermon than to put into practice, both for you the hearers and me the preacher. Maybe this is why James’ letter has been so unpopular throughout the history of the church.
In this morning’s Gospel we encounter Jesus’ divinity and his very real humanity. We see him wrestling with some of the same issues James is talking about in his Epistle, The situation is this: Jesus is traveling outside the boundaries of Israel, perhaps hoping to get away from the clamoring crowds for a little R&R. The text says, “He did not want anyone to know he was there.” But he could not escape the notice of a Syrophoenician woman with a sick daughter. She begs him to heal her child. At first it appears Jesus is simply rude to her. Maybe he is tired and cranky; we all get they way sometimes. What we do know is that he understands that his mission is to save the house of Israel and this Syrophoenician woman is not part of the house of Israel; she is an outsider, a foreigner. He calls her a dog and lets her know that she’s not part of the chosen few! But then his heart is opened and his compassion and all-embracing love overcome the limited boundaries of his pre-conceived sense of mission and he heals to the woman’s child. Jesus ends up modeling exactly what James many years later is trying to say to the church. What good are all our religious laws and practices if we arrogantly and self-righteously turn away from our neighbor in need because we refuse to see the face of God in their face? Because of his encounter with this woman of faith, who didn’t happen to be from the house of Israel, Jesus’ ministry expands before his very eyes.
And then moving back toward Galilee, he meets a deaf man. Jesus put his hand in the man’s ears, and looking up toward heaven says, ‘Be opened!” His ears are opened and his tongue released. The deaf man experiences the blessing of Jesus. His tongue is loosed to proclaim the good news of God’s love, and his ears are now opened to hear the joys and the cries of God’s people. Like that of the Syrophoenician woman. Once again Jesus healing ministry crosses human boundaries.
Tomorrow we remember the fifth anniversary of 9/11. In the mix of emotions that we all continue to have about that horrific day, I suspect most of us still feel a profound and unrelenting sadness about the hate and mistrust that continues to fester in the collective human soul and the violence that we are capable of inflicting on one another. I once heard Desmond Tutu say that the boldest claim in the Bible is that we are one family—regardless of race, nationality, religion, socio-economic circumstances or anything else that separates us from one another. If we only really believed that and lived out of an ethic of family love, how different the world would be. That’s what Jesus’ encounters with the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man are all about. And that is why James in his epistle is urging us to be doers of the Word. Jesus challenges us to open our hearts and ears to the joys and cries of God’s people everywhere, beyond our pre-conceived notions of who is in or who is out. Author Rodney Clapp writes, “September 11 demonstrated what was always so, that finally there can be no personal peace apart from care for politics and the nurturing and support of a people’s common good. If the good news was only or primarily about private happiness it was rendered irrelevant.”
By our faith we are saved, not by our works. God’s love is unconditional and cannot be bought, earned or bargained for. But our response to the gift of faith ought to be to strive for justice and peace among all people, to see every person as our neighbor, to love our enemies and respect the dignity of every human being—not because any of this is an insurance plan for life everlasting, but because we have fallen in love with God in whose image we are created.