“Becoming wise through serving”
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a / Mark 9:30-37
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
20 September 2015
After our special Rally Sunday start to our new program year last week, today we’ve returned to our usual pattern of worship; and with that, a return to the lectionary cycle of Sunday readings we follow much of the time.
The second reading this week and next is from the Book of James, one of those skinny books toward the back of the Bible that’s easy to overlook … and for serious Martin Luther-style Lutherans, one that they usually overlook, because Luther didn’t like this book of the Bible.
Why? Well, it doesn’t mention Jesus much; only once or twice by name. And it says much more about what we ought to do, than what Jesus does for us.
For it was during the Reformation – that time when Martin Luther spoke and wrote of his discovery in the Scriptures that we are saved from sin and death by God’s grace, through faith, and not by anything we might do to try and please God - well, the opponents of Luther – and there were many – used proof texts from the Epistle of James to contradict Luther, to try and prove that, indeed, what we do does have some place in God’s great scheme of salvation …
Proof texts such as James 1:22:
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
There’s this, from later on in James, ch. 2:
Can faith save you? Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
And, from today’s text:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness borne of wisdom.
It’s because of verses such as these, and their constant use by Luther’s opponents, that, in a moment of very human anger, he called the book of James “a right straw epistle” and even went so far as hinting that it should be removed from the Bible, because it seemed to so contradict the message of Jesus, and Paul’s expounding on that in his own epistles.
It was true for Luther that, at a time when the leadership of the church had assigned a “to do” list and a price tag to everything connected with one’s salvation, and when the word about salvation by grace through faith was blowing the Holy Spirit’s fresh breath of renewal through a dead Church, the epistle of James did seem to be contradictory to the Gospel message.
So why would James have written such an epistle?
Well, after being saddled for years- decades- centuries by the need for scrupulous attention to the “traditions of the elders,” those kosher laws we heard about a couple of weeks ago, and the associated rules and regulations, some of the new Jewish Christian converts of the late 1st century had now gone to the other extreme: they now interpreted the “freedom of the Gospel” as meaning that they didn’t have to do anything to help their neighbor or each other. It was “every believer for themselves,” no need to give, no need to care because Jesus had done everything for them already.
And even Luther lamented a similar kind of behavior years after the Reformation, when the new Evangelicals, free from the rigors of medieval Roman Catholicism … pilgrimages, meaningless works of guilt and so on … they started acting the same way as the Jewish Christians of James’ time.
But – nevertheless - this has been our inheritance, over the centuries. We Lutherans – we say our gift to the church is our theology, our doctrine of “salvation by grace through faith” – we can’t do anything to be made right with God – and so, for many … that means they, we do little or nothing in the way of giving or serving, at all.
Others who follow Jesus have noticed. A member of a former congregation where I served told me a story about a denominational convention which he once attended. An African American preacher … who was not Lutheran … was addressing the crowd. He lauded Lutherans for our theology and doctrine, our clear confessional statements. But, he said, this wasn’t enough, it wasn’t “it” in his view, when it came to being a faithful Christian. In his vernacular, (Art quotes him,) “You Lutherans are pretty good at dogmatatin,’ but what you need is more tangibilifying!’”
Another African American preacher, one who bore a particularly important name to us, was more profound, although just as blunt:
Any religion that, in the name of a ‘high’ doctrine … cares more for isolated sentences on a page than it does about the anguished cry of our neighbors is. . . a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.– Dr. Martin Luther King
So how might, how do we balance these two poles of faith … belief stated in doctrine, and belief showing itself in action?
Today’s Gospel, indeed, has a Good News word for us.
Remember, as we re-enter Mark’s gospel for the rest of the year before us … remember that in Mark, Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lot of use for dogmatic pondering and doctrinal purity. And that’s because … in his place and time, that’s the purview of the Pharisees, the sector of the Sadducees, the ones who through their careful attention to every detail of the Law … they draw Jesus’ ire and wrath at every turn. It’s not a mistake that Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is always “immediately” doing this and “immediately” doing that. It’s a not so veiled dig at those leaders of his religion who were much more into the “let’s talk about it, think about it, think it over, consider all the aspects of it” way of NOT moving in faith. Jesus’ model in Mark’s Gospel is to do it, first, do the service, do the healing, do the moving, and then - talk about it later. Action – then reflection.
It’s clear from Jesus that dogma and doctrine were, are to serve … serving.
Remembering the poor. Caring for the least of these. Being the last of all and the servant of all.
And today’s Gospel reading, it heads there straightaway.
After Jesus’ second announcement of what lies ahead for him … in chapter 8 of Mark is the first … after this, Jesus perceives that his disciples are arguing about something. And it’s a typical children’s argument … who is the greatest?
Hear Jesus’ answer to them ... a continuation of his prediction, a word of the Cross:
Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
And then ... hear some more of what he says, and watch what he does, to show them what this means:
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
To show the disciples what this cross-shaped living is all about, Jesus says, “take up ... welcome ... a child.”
And this child represents something larger than just itself.
For what is a little child?
One who is helpless in getting along in the world. A little child can’t work, or earn a living, or be a productive member of society.
A child ... is one who cannot be self-sufficient ... but one who is totally dependent on others.
A child ... this child ... this one Jesus holds before the disciples, and says “Welcome him ... welcome her” ... this child represents all people who can’t do or be for themselves ... those who would be labeled “drains on society” ... the poor, the powerless, the orphaned, the widowed, the sick, the suffering, the helpless, the hopeless.
And Jesus says, if you want to be great, you must welcome those who are such as these. You must serve those who are such as these.
You see ... this faith, this life, in Jesus’ name ... it’s not at all about being on our own, I’ll do for myself and you’ll do for yourself, and if you can’t do for yourself, well, tough ... no, it’s all about that word on which we’ve focused the past few weeks … that word which is square before us in today’s reading from James.
Submit yourselves therefore to God.
Submission to God. Submission to service to others in Jesus’ name ... and which others? The ones who are unable to make it on their own.
When Jesus commands submission to God … he means that this faith, this life, it’s not all about ‘me’ ... it’s all about ‘we.’ Faith is not simply a matter of having a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ … no, not at all … the life of faith is lived out in communion and community. With others. With each other.
And that’s why we do what we do as people of God, people who follow Jesus, people who are called to submit to God.
Together he calls US to confess our sins, to hear the words of forgiveness, to be baptized in the flowing streams of living water which flow from the heart of our God who welcomes us in Jesus’ name.
Together Jesus invites US to come and eat, come and drink, come and dine at his table of love and life, and then, to go forth and welcome as he welcomes, to serve as he serves, to live as he lives.
The cross-shaped life is life lived out in community, with the strength and support of living with each other, living for each other.
And there are plenty of opportunities in the places in our own lives, each of us, touching someone, somewhere, somehow, the “poor” in some way, physically, emotionally, spiritually, who need not only to be remembered, but to be served. That’s the great thing about service. Once you start … you find more opportunities, more ways to serve.
So … just do it.
Come and worship. Come … called, gathered in grace, sent to serve.
For we have been served, already, by the one who has suffered, and died, and risen again … who has called and welcomed, freed and forgiven each one of us; freed … forgiven … sent, to bear good fruit.
So may you bear some good fruit this week, so that your tangibilifyin’ shows forth … so that others, seeing you, encountering you, receiving you, will know the love of Jesus the Christ, through you, for them. Amen.