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Sunday, September 9, 2012

How We Can Tell

James tells us how we can know if our faith is alive.  He teaches us that our faith, while a gift, is a dead possession if it is not producing new life and healing for the world, to all people, regardless of who they are.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 23, year B; texts: Mark 7:24-37; James 2:1-17; Isaiah 35:4a-7

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious.  Jesus is clearly from God, God’s Son as proclaimed.  It’s very simple when you have Isaiah and Mark, both in the same book, held in one hand.  Isaiah promises that when God comes to save – and these were needed words, important promises to the chosen people who feel separated from their God – when God comes to save, says Isaiah, the deaf will hear.  The blind will see.  The lame will leap like deer.  And in Mark we see Jesus do just that – the deaf hear.  The blind see.  The lame walk.  Jesus is God’s promised healing.  That’s obvious.

What’s also obvious is this.  Though we have the advantage of the Scriptures completely telling the story of Jesus and his love for us and the world, telling of his death and resurrection, promising us new life now and life after death in a world to come, though we have 20-20 hindsight on all the people of the Bible, we are more often than not living like the desperate chosen people to whom Isaiah speaks.  We act as people of faith who are still worried.  People who are fearful.  People who wonder when and if God will come to this world, to us, and make a difference.  And people who act as if faith has no connection to the way we live.

And it’s odd.  We use words again and again that sound like we believe Jesus is risen and offering us love and life.  We speak of grace, of Gospel, of Good News.  We claim that the Church is God’s gracious ambassador to a broken world, offering life in Christ to all.  We speak of our faith as if it’s something precious to us.  But too often we live with each other and in this world as if we haven’t ever really received such grace, such Gospel, such Good News.

Well, it may be partly because we haven’t spent enough time with the letter of James.  You know what they say, Brother Martin didn’t like it.  His famous observation that James is a letter of straw has led Lutherans to discount it, ignore it, act as if we needn’t pay attention to it.

But James talks about visible signs of one’s faith.  How you can see if faith is real, if faith is alive.  Luther, understandably, got nervous about mixing up works that we do with the grace and love of God that is ours freely.  But if you look at his criticism, he may have been missing James’ point, and even he saw great value in James.  It certainly can be argued that we Lutherans have missed the point of James all this time at any rate.  And that it has cost us.

Because without James’ reminder, faith can become abstract, a concept, a doctrine.

And that’s our great temptation as Lutherans – we can talk about faith until we’re blue in the face.  But we don’t share our faith very well, or very often.  And it doesn’t always shape our lives in the world.

And so we find it endlessly important to debate the smallest of points with each other.  Now, we should value intelligence and good understanding.  But we have made bickering an art form.  Because we have made faith and grace “concepts” instead of realities in our lives, we even fight to the death, almost.  People feel they are defending God, defending truth.  So Lutherans who otherwise seem sane can justify any unkindness, any mockery, any slander, any abuse on the grounds that they are fighting for the truth.

And what’s worse than that, too often we’ve valued such “right thinking,” such “knowing” far more than living our faith.  As long as we’ve got our understanding in order, all is well.  Even if it doesn’t change who we are.  How we live our lives, how we treat others.

Here’s all that James is saying.  This is very simple.  He says, “Faith is good.  It is gift.  But if it is received, if it is real, if you know it, you will look different.  Act different.  Be different.”

James is not substituting works for grace.  Not even remotely.  He’s just saying that once you’ve lived in Graceland (to use a phrase a friend of mine finds helpful), once you know that you are loved completely by God, you will be different.  Nothing will be the same.

James is criticized for not teaching anything of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, but we know nothing of what he would say about that, because that wasn’t the point of his writing.  His point is to challenge people to see that their faith is dead when people are hungry, when people have no clothes, when people don’t know God’s love, and all Christians want to do is talk to them.

Simply, for us as Lutherans, it means this:  If we believe in grace, we want to live in grace, and with grace, and through grace.  Faith as concept says, “God loves all.”  Or argues about that.  Faith as reality lives God’s love for all in the world.  That’s the difference.

It turns out that James and Jesus are in full agreement with how faith is lived.

We see this in other kinds of healing Jesus did, healing that wasn’t necessarily the physical healing promised and fulfilled in Isaiah and Mark today.  Jesus took proud people, people who knew everything, people who were on top, and helped them see that they were loved by God simply for who they were, not for what they had or did, something James sees as well.  And that healing led them to share all they had with the poor and needy, to see them as sisters and brothers.  People like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, important leaders, became servants of Jesus, even caring for his body and its burial and serving the Church after the resurrection.  People like Paul, highly educated, a Roman citizen, a leader among the Pharisees, who became Jesus’ apostle of grace after being a persecutor of the early Church.

Jesus took no-account people, people who were stepped on, downtrodden, and lifted them up with love, something James exhorts his people to do today.  They, for the first time, knew they were important.  And look what they became.  Mary Magdalene, the first apostle and preacher of the Resurrection.  Joanna, Susanna.  All the women who were key leaders.  And poor fishermen, illiterate peasants, who became inspired sharers of the love of the risen Christ in the world, who gave their lives to tell that love, who left fear behind in the joy of faith in Christ.

But we have to take a moment now and look at one odd part of today’s Gospel, because it appears that even Jesus might have had to learn to look for broader consequences of the love he came to bring, changes to his idea of who will get it than what he began with.

It’s a strange story, and we’ll never know if Jesus was just testing this poor Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed, or if he genuinely was focused only on Israel at that point.  But because of that incredibly brave foreign woman, we are able to see something astonishing.  Jesus, this Jewish Messiah, begins doing among the Gentiles what he was already doing among the chosen people.  The deaf man healed today was in Gentile territory, so likely a Gentile himself.  And Jesus next does another miraculous feeding with loaves and fish, but this time in Gentile territory.

Whatever the reason for Jesus’ apparent partiality, it’s gone now.  And suddenly it becomes clear: the grace of God in Christ is for all people, no matter what.  There are no divisions, there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus, as Paul would teach the Church.  And this leads someone like James to chide his people for acting as if they have faith, but living in such a way that it isn’t clear they follow such a Jesus, serve such an inclusive God.

So this is how we know that Jesus is real, Jesus is God’s Son, Jesus is God’s eternal love for us and the world.  By how we are changed by our faith in him.  And by how we live.

It’s how we know our faith is alive, James says.  When like Jesus before us, we open our arms to all who need God’s grace and healing, we’ll know.

So, when people who think that the only way they can be OK with God is to get it right, and they’re convinced that they always are getting it right, when they are changed, we’ll know.  When these people realize instead that they are loved by God for who they are, not for their perceived rightness, and that they are called to love in return, then we’ll know.

And when people who have been told all their lives that they are worthless know God’s love, we’ll know.  People who have been put down and sent away, who can’t believe they could be loved by anyone and so often are not able to love others themselves, when these people realize instead that they are loved, and blessed, and important, and begin to share that love in return, then we’ll know.

And finally, this: when each one of us is healed of the things that block us from living in love, we’ll know.  When that which prevents us from acting in love, giving of ourselves in love, is removed, and we begin to share the love of God that we first saw clearly on the cross – a love that knows no limits, that has no fear, that trusts and gives and changes the world by giving – when we see these things happen in us, and love starts to flow from us, then we’ll know.

This is how we’ll know our faith is alive, when we are changed by it.

And we do not need to be afraid.  If we make mistakes in our loving – and we will – we’ll trust that God will forgive us, just as we trust in God’s forgiveness of anything else we have done.  If we face fear in our lives, such as facing pain or suffering or even death, we’ll know that we are not alone, because the God of the universe holds us firmly by the hand.   And when we see someone hungry, we won’t argue about what faith is.  We’ll live in our faith and give them some soup.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible, she tells that at one point the Southern Baptists had spent a whole convention debating over a very important theological doctrine: they were debating the size of heaven, how many cubits wide it was, and so on.  What made me want to weep in her story was the response of a little girl.  All she was afraid of was this: once you are done measuring, will there be enough room for me?  That’s the concern of our woman for her daughter today, the concern of the world as they hear our proclamation but look at our lives, the concern of James for the lives of his people.  If our failing to live the Good News causes any little one to wonder if there’s room for them in God’s love, we don’t have any reason to believe we even know what Good News is.

Let’s not be afraid to live grace, live faith, instead of keeping them as concepts.  When we do, we will find the healing love of Jesus that has no end, and we will wonder how we ever lived any other way.  Once you’ve lived in Graceland, there’s no place else that will do, for anyone.  Because it’s for everyone.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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