Sunday, August 30, 2009

Do-ers of the Word

A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter |August 30, 2009 | 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Scriptures: Song of Solomon 2:8-13 ; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Those of us who are more or less of our ilk can often find ourselves suspended between two human ideals ... ideals that are familiar to our faith.

One ideal concerns the “centered life” ... the fulfilment of our human potential ... the deepening of our inner wells ... the artful creation of a life within ... the hallowing of one’s spirit and soul ... the sacredness of simply “being”.

The other ideal concerns the “engaged” life ... re-enacting the puritan work ethic ... the desire to be of use and the fear of being useless ... embracing frenetic activity and loathing the sedentary life characterized by the phrase: “I’d rather burn out than rust out.” ... the simple imperative of “doing”.

Philosophers and theologians have played a kind of mental teeter-totter on the two seats and sides of this seeming paradox between the quietly centered life and the energetically engaged life. We all have our favourite thinkers on matters and conundrums like these.

One of my favorite philosophers is named “Earl”. Just Earl. He might have a last name, but I don’t know it. Nearly every day I go to where I know I can find Earl. Whenever I go there, Earl’s always there. Earl’s retired and there doesn’t seem there’s any place he’s particularly interested in going except where I find him—which is either at home or sitting on a park bench with his buddy. Earl is not a vaunted philosopher ... he hasn’t written any books—though he’s been featured in books ... he’s probably never given a speech. In particular he’s fond of aphorisms ... little pithy sayings usually made famous by better known philosophers.

Now like many of us, Earl struggles with discerning the right balance between being centered and being engaged ... between being and doing. In my time with Earl, it seems clear that “being” has a clear advantage over “doing” in his daily life.

Just the other day Earl was in his advanced thinking position which, to the uninformed eye, might look like simply laying on the couch. Earl’s wife Opal happens by and pauses in silence very likely wondering if Earl is thinking ... sleeping ... or simply dead. Earl ends the suspense by saying: “Just because I’m lying here on the sofa doesn’t mean I’m wasting time.” Earl goes on to say: “Someone once said, ‘The time you enjoy wasting isn’t wasted time.’” Opal reflects on this and then says, as only the spouse of a philosopher can, “Then you’re probably the happiest man alive.”

While those of us who are Earl’s acquaintances might think the struggle between being and doing is quite settled for our retired and thoroughly relaxed philosopher friend, there are times when the impetus to do and act and engage nearly moves him to do these things. A recent day found Earl sitting on his front steps gripping the top stair looking quite focused and determined. Opal approaches and Earl turns and asks: “You want to know what I’m doing?” “O .... kay ...” Opal says. Sometimes Opal is content to leave Earl be and not ask too many questions. “I’m forcing myself NOT to be a grumpy old man. No one likes them. So ... I’m changing my ways. See?” he says pointing toward the street, “Those teenagers are cutting across our lawn and I’m not yelling or saying a word. I’m adopting a Buddhist approach: “Don’t just do something; sit there.” With that, he closes his eyes, fiercely grips the top step and begins to wobble and vibrate with the forced effort. After a moment of watching his best efforts at practicing the Zen mind, Opal says: “I think you’d better do SOMETHING, Earl. Your face is turning purple and smoke is coming out of your ears.”

Oh, by the way, if you’d like to meet Earl and Opal, you’re welcome to join me some morning as I gather with them between the pages of the morning comics under the title of their particular strip which simply reads: “Pickles”.

So this is the “pickle” that we sometimes find ourselves in and it’s the same pickle facing James’ community in this morning’s epistle reading: the seemingly opposite pull between centering and engaging ... between being and doing.

Within our lives as modern Christians we can feel the pull in each of these directions. There is the pull of the quiet place ... the moments of prayer ... meditation and solitude ... orienting the inner strands of your being much as a Zen priest rakes the sand in his garden. Those of us who have found the warmth and light of God’s presence and being in these times and practices can’t be faulted for wishing to dwell in that place ... to return again and again to that sacred presence. And those who are deeply rooted in these ways in the ground of God’s being are an enormous blessing to those others of us who distract easily and who sit still only with great effort. [They are a blessing because they are ... ]

For these others, there’s the rush of engagement ... the job to do and to do well ... the call and response with our lives and energies ... the lavish spending of oneself in the service of high ideals amidst the nitty-gritty details of life ... to echo with one’s life the credo of the writer, Jack London who said: I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time. Those of us who prefer to engage our hands in prayer yet know that our world has been deeply blessed by the engagers and responders and do-ers.

And so seemingly, we’re back to the mental teeter-totter ... the two seats and sides of this seeming paradox between the quietly centered life and the energetically engaged life ... the seemingly opposite pull between being and doing ... between faith and works.

Now I’ve framed these polarities in this last way—“faith and works”—because a cursory reading of the New Testament might lead one to think that faith and works are somehow mutually exclusive ... that they cannot co-exist within one person ... that there’s a choice one has to make between them ... or that one is somehow superior to the other.

You’ll probably remember that Paul, the Apostle, placed a great deal of emphasis on becoming “right” with God through faith alone. “Justification by faith through grace” is of Paul’s theology in his letters to the Romans and Galatians ... and powerfully echoed by Martin Luther 1500 years later. Paul was rejecting the belief that one’s efforts, one’s “works” were in any way sufficient for “salvation” ... for being in a right and eternal relationship with God. But it was not “good works” per se that were at stake for Paul. Paul was not advocating against living out one’s life in the manner of Jesus. He was simply saying that the intricate, demanding religious practices centered around the minutiae of the Law might very well lead the practitioner away from understanding the pure, unearned GRACE of God that was present in Jesus.

There are those who think they read between the lines of the New Testament a conflict between the theologies of James and Paul. But I’m not so sure.

The Letter of James isn’t really a “letter” per se. It is more a kind of New Testament wisdom writing. The author is writing in the spirit and name of James, the brother of Jesus and an early church leader. The author is a Christian teacher or preacher seeking to offer guidance to Christians on “everyday faithfulness”. In particular, the author of James emphasized the “works of faith” and “the law of love in action”. Faith WITHOUT works—without corresponding acts of compassion and kindness and mercy—faith without those kinds of works was really no faith at all ... that kind of faith is a sham ... a phony ... a mockery of TRUE faith.

Emphasis on “works” made Martin Luther nervous and he wasn’t even sure that James was a “Christian” writing and not sure that it should’ve been included in the New Testament. But I don’t think Martin Luther was at odds at all with the concept of “faith at work” or “love in action”. Luther wrote a whole treatise on “Good Works”.

And James, the letter, is not at all at odds with Paul or Martin Luther and the idea of the all-sufficiency of God’s grace. James is grounded in the assumption of God’s great love and grace as the soil out of which the fruits of our faithfulness grow. James simply asks the question of his community and every Christian community since: “If you don’t bear fruit befitting the great love and mercy of God, then the soil in which you’re planted may be sterile and dead.”

To say it even more pointedly: “If the good words we speak and affirm don’t find a corresponding commitment and activity in our lives ... then the faith we claim is in danger of being no faith at all.”

It strikes me that this nation is a nation of “good words” ... in the past we’ve been referred to in high places as a “city on a hill”—an echo of Isaiah’s reference to Israel as a “light to the nations”. Even if as a nation we do not have a common creed ... a common faith, we have high ideals that are well summarized by Emma Lazarus’ poem that interprets that intention of the Statue of Liberty. Here is one way of depicting the “good words and ideals” of this nation:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

We are in the middle of an ugly, knock-down, drag-out battle over national health care. The battle is the new locus of the highly partisan war for the heart of this nation and its voters. In regard to the question of national health care, I know where I stand and many of us stand. Many of us are confident we know where God privately and perhaps not-so-privately stands in this battle. But without invoking God’s name, we can yet put Lady Liberty’s compassionate vision as the appropriate backdrop against which all of our conversations about the welfare of the most vulnerable of our nation’s people should be held. Use the vision as a bit of a litmus test, if we will, of whether or not we, as a nation, really do live up to the words of compassion and mercy and justice that are etched in brass in a New York harbour.

As I think about Lady Liberty’s grand vision—a vision that is deeply consistent with any so-called Christian ethic ... and as I think about the tens of millions of American without health insurance who are being bandied about like pawns in this healthcare debate, I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ words from this morning’s reading from Mark where he castigates the hypocrisy of those whose faith is without works:

‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

Will we choose faith or works? Will we choose grand, eloquent words and high-minded ideals? Or will we choose to act in mercy and compassion and justice?

Let’s be VERY clear that any of us who feel that we need to choose between faith and action are facing a false dilemma. It may help to return to the image of the teeter-totter which does not suggest disconnected realities, but profoundly connected and interdependent matters of our lives of faith.

As someone has suggested:"Faith" and "works" are not opposed; they're not even disconnected. The truly wise, truly faithful individual is known not by what they say they believe, but in how they live what they believe. After all, according to Eugene Peterson, "Wisdom is not primarily knowing the truth, although it certainly includes that; it is skill in living. For what good is a truth if we don't know how to live it? What good is an intention if we can't sustain it?"

One of the great pains in this time of recession is the spectre of unemployment. California is at the highest recorded level of unemployment since modern measures of joblessness began. Unemployment is tragic at several levels, but not the least of which is that the energies and ideas and the “usefulness” of an extraordinary number of our employable neighbors are not being utilized.

James’ concern is that the Word of God—the heart, mind, spirit and intentions of God’s own being were under-employed, under-utilized, largely un-realized in the lives of too many who made great professions of faith. James urges his listeners, then and now, to take rich and living faith we have embraced and internalized ... to the next step. To plant that faith and to allow it to flourish in rich and compassionate acts and decisions. Loving action rooted in deep faith. That’s the call of James to us and it’s a call that can be heard and heeded by any person of good faith and good conscience whose professed ideals are underemployed and underutilized.

We are human “beings” ... spiritual souls capable of great depth. Let us also hear the call to be human “doings”—hearing within the truthful depths of our souls the call to employ the just and merciful ideals of God’s own heart ... and the life and ministry of Jesus the Christ.

Faith at work. Love in action. Hearers AND Doers of God’s word of grace, mercy and peace.


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