PROPER 17B – August 30, 2015
In the reading from James this morning, two ideas are contrasted. First there is the idea of the ‘implanted word’ and, second, the idea of ‘doing the word.’ At first you might believe there is a contradiction here, that James is saying that doing is more important than being. But the section as a whole says that for us to be the ‘first-fruits’ of God, Christians cannot be hearers of the word only; they must reveal its working in their lives. It is the gospel Word that has been implanted from which these good works come. These are, then, not so much contradictory ideas as they are complementary ideas that work together.
One commentator on churchy stuff recently said that the fellow who does stats for one (I will not name it) denomination thinks that 400 pastors (I’m assuming that this means 400 pastors from the that denomination and like-churches) will be resigning this weekend due to the Ashley Madison hack (as reported in “Christianity Today.”) There’s lots of internet handwringing on conservative Christian websites about how “everyone” knows “someone” on the AM hack list. As far as I know, I don’t know anyone involved in the hack. (Diana Butler Bass made this comment on FaceBook). My point in repeating this news is simply to note the resignations. Setting aside for the moment, as if we could or should, the grace of God; It seems to me that the internal conversation that permitted participation in this behavior in the first place implies that what you believe is more important as what you do. The resignations serve as evidence (if there are any) that what you do is as important, or at least should be reasonably consistent with, what you believe.
In the gospel lesson, the disciples create their own little issue with the religious authorities by not following prescribed procedures. They do not wash their hands, nor the dishes as they are supposed to. Despite the miracles they have been a part of, what specifically bothers the religious authorities is that they do not follow the rules. They are accusing the disciples of being hearers and not doers.
The irony, of course, and the point of it being recorded in the gospel is that these religious leaders “…pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. ” (Matthew 23: 4-5a, CEV) Telling this story is pointing out that ‘do as I say, not as I do’ condition most everybody suffers from in one way or another.
Still, there isn’t anything sadder that when someone who we lift up because of who they are, or what we want them to be, falls (or jumps) off the pillar we’ve placed them on. In these days of instant messages and the Internet, (the Ashley Madison scandal, for heaven’s sake), starlets and politicians have little or no chance of not ‘falling from grace’. Every mis-step, every faux pau is quickly printed and published for all to see. Sometimes we think they deserve it. Some people say they are not surprised at all the news about Josh Duggar. Nobody can be as good as the image they project because as the Pharisees and Sadducees can tell you, an image is a difficult thing to maintain. It is hard to be exposed as something you are not, or as not something others want you to be. It is so very easy for our actions to betray our faith. It is hard to be as good a ‘doer of the word’ as we are a ‘hearer of the word.’
A friend and I were together the other day and he got a call from a colleague at work. He told this other fellow that he was with ‘the Pastor.’ They other man said, ‘you won’t catch me in church.’ I do not know why he said this, but I have my suspicions. It may be that he is afraid he would be judged for some reason. Or, did you know that there are people out there in the community that do not want to have anything to do with church because they think that everyone there is narrow minded and judgmental? Why would someone think that? Why? Because,
For all its loudness, all its exclusion, violence and ubiquity, the faith that is modeled in the public square is often not particularly affecting. It is hard to imagine someone looking on it from outside and musing to herself, “I’d like to have some of that.” (Jimmy Carter’s Image of Faith Truest to What Faith Should Be, Leonard Pitts Jr., Tribune Content Agency on Aug 26, 2015)
If there were any truth in that rumor, it would be because what we do is not consistent with what we say we believe. More likely, however, is that folks who are honest with themselves and their shortcomings are resistant to organized religion because they anticipate judgment. Hard or not, to say we are Christians means to not only hear the good news, but also to be about those things Christ was about.
Our faith is, after all, about believing something so fully that you cannot help but act on it. It is as when someone loves someone so fully that they cannot help but act out their concern. To say you believe in peace, and to continually go off to war reveals what you really believe in. Peace is not founded upon war. To say you are concerned about the poor and to build for yourself bigger barns is evidence you do not really care for the poor. The poor are not lifted out of poverty by special concern for the wealthiest 2% in the nation. “It is complicated,” we say, and it is. But it is not so complicated that our beliefs cannot be measured by the slightest indications of charity, love, and grace. When we revere christians like Jimmy Carter, it is not because they wrote a great theological treatise; it is because their actions were a great statement of faithfulness.
There is something to be said for grand and sweeping mission efforts. But what I think James is encouraging is everyday ministry. Forgiving when I have the opportunity. Being generous where I can. All the while, in little things, hoping against hope that these daily acts of ministry mean something, that they bring the grace of God closer, and make the love of Christ something real; becoming not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts.