Texts: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 * Psalm 15 * James 1:17-27 * Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I am looking for the holes / the holes in your jeans / because I want to know / are they worn out in the seat / or are they worn out in the knees. (“Looking for the Holes,” by Ani DiFranco on Not So Soft, 1990)
If I were going to sing this song to you, it would be better for all of us if I could play the guitar, but I can’t, so you’ll have to imagine a very simple, repetitive strummed background with hand clapped against the body of an acoustic guitar to keep the beat, and maybe I’ll just speak the lyrics. It’s a song by Ani DiFranco – are any of you familiar with her music? – that came out almost twenty years ago, just as I was starting college, and it asks the question that pervades the book of James, which we’re going to be reflecting on together for the next five weeks: what difference does your faith make in the way you live your life?
There are so many ways to wear / what we’ve got before it’s gone / to make use of what is there / you know, I don’t wear anything I can’t wipe my hands on.
“What we’ve got before it’s gone,” a clever way of referring to our lives. There are so many ways to wear our lives, to make use of them. To keep them neat and tidily separate from the people and pains that fill the world we share, or to dive into the fray and apply ourselves to the healing of the world.
In today’s gospel story Jesus is confronted by a group of religious people who disapprove of the way he’s wearing his life. They question his choice of friends and followers, people who didn’t observe the religious rules, the purity rituals of hand washing. The religious people who criticize Jesus are afraid of getting dirty, they don’t want to get too close to people whose manner of living might disrupt their well ordered lives. They aren’t looking to have their religious imaginations disturbed. They resent the presence of a teacher whose flagrant disregard for their cherished traditions calls their values into question.
“Listen to me,” he says, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Or, as Ani sings it, “I don’t wear anything I can’t wipe my hands on.”
Do your politics fit between the headlines / are they written in newsprint, are they distant? / Mine are crossing an empty parking lot / they are a woman walking home / at night / alone.
What difference does our faith make in the way we live our lives? Or, to consider the question from another angle, how does the faith of the community of St. Luke’s make a difference in your life? Do you see the difference between those questions? I ask because so often we start by assuming that the words of encouragement and instruction we hear in scripture are meant to bolster us in our interactions with the nameless needy people of the world. People who sound like statistics in a headline about “the homeless” or “the hungry” or “the immigrants.”
But I wonder if that’s a way of keeping our faith and our lives neatly separated from one another, clean and distant. Your lives aren’t nearly so neat. You work hard during the days. You struggle in your relationships. You work to maintain friendships and care for your families. You save your money with the hope that you will keep your job through this bad economy. You lose your jobs. You prepare your meals and try to remain healthy. You get sick, and you worry about how to pay your bills. And in all of that messiness, you come to church and you read scripture and you sing songs of faith and you receive the Lord’s Supper. Why do you do this? What difference does it make in your lives?
I was away last week, as you know, with Bill and Judi Keippel at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. It was a long week, full of debates and historic decisions (which we’ll have time to talk about later). I was glad to be there, glad to witness and to take part, but it was exhausting. The churchwide assembly is considered an expression of the church, like a congregation or a synod, yet the 1,045 voting members who gathered for a week to represent our church were essentially strangers to each other. As they stepped up to the microphones to debate matters of human sexuality, funding for AIDS and malaria initiatives, or full communion agreements with our Methodist sisters and brothers, they were addressing one another in sound bites of three minutes or less. They were speaking about matters of deep personal import as though they’d been ripped from the headlines of the local newspaper, which is where our conversations ended up.
I don’t know if there’s a better way to do this kind of communal discernment when you’re part of a denomination of almost five million people, I just know it left me eager to get back to all of you. It made me miss you. It’s not that we’re a group of people who don’t have arguments, but as the local church – as a congregation – we’re closely acquainted enough with each other’s lives that our disputes are always informed by the fullness (the messiness) of each other’s lives. You aren’t faceless statistics from a headline to me or to one another. You are parents with grandchildren that keep you up at night. You are graduate students preparing for a new career. You are teachers in public schools, colleges and universities. You are musicians. You are a woman walking home, at night, alone, in a neighborhood that still struggles to keep its residents safe. You know each other that well. You are that caught up in each other’s stories. That, I hope, is part of the difference that your faith makes in your lives.
You can talk a great philosophy / but if you can’t be kind to people every day / it doesn’t mean that much to me / it’s the little things you do, it’s the little things you say / it’s the love that you give along the way…
We’ve just come through five weeks of readings from the sixth chapter of the gospel of John, five weeks of extended reflection on Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand and his teaching on the “bread of life.” Now we begin a new five week series where we’ll be hearing each week from the letter of James.
James has not fared so well in Lutheran circles. In a New Testament full of letters to communities throughout the ancient near east, some have called it the junk mail of scripture. Luther called it an “epistle of straw” because of his assessment that it does little to show forth Christ, and the danger that its readers would be led to rely on their works rather than God’s grace in the working out of their salvation. The passage we’ll hear next week includes one of the more memorable verses from James, “so faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). This appears to be a direct contradiction of the apostle Pa
ul’s assertion that “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Rom. 3:28), a cornerstone of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Because of this, Luther complained that the epistle of James has “nothing of that nature of the gospel about it.”
It’s important however, as always, to keep the context of the letter in mind. Unlike Paul, who was the great evangelist of the early church, the messenger of the gospel, the letter of James does not appear to be written with evangelism in mind. Rather, James appears to be speaking to the transformed life of those who have already begun to follow Jesus. When Paul speaks about being “justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” it’s often in the context of food laws, circumcision or purification rites – like the ones Jesus is confronted with by the Pharisees in Mark’s gospel story. In other places Paul talks about the law in terms of murder or slander or adultery, but there he is generally making the point that people who boast of their righteousness under one part of the law still fail to keep it in other areas, and by their boasting make themselves subject to the whole of the law. Ultimately, Paul is concerned that human beings think they can somehow justify themselves, by their own actions, apart from the grace and love of God – which bears all things and forgives all things, and all people.
But when James speaks of works, it’s not in that context. James isn’t so much worried about people’s experience of being unconditionally loved and accepted by God, he’s more concerned about what effect that love has on the life of the person who receives it. The good works James will speak to us about over the next five weeks aren’t the price of admission into the reign of God, they are the first fruits – the offerings – made by Christians out of grateful hearts.
Like the Pharisees, who didn’t understand how Jesus could keep company with dirty people, who wanted their religion to give them license to remain set apart from the messiness of real life, the church today – and sometimes we ourselves – struggles with the question of whether or not it can embrace the other, the person whose way of living or practicing their faith looks so foreign, so distorted, that it is repugnant to us. We are tempted to pull away from each other, to keep to our communities of like-minded people. To keep clean.
To people like that, to people like us, James says, “You must understand this, my beloved:* let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:19-20,26-27).
“You can talk a great philosophy, but if you can’t be kind to people every day it doesn’t mean that much to me…”
When we patch things up they say “a job well done” / but when we ask why, where did the rips come from / they say we are subversive, and extreme, of course / we are just trying to track a problem to its source.
James writes, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” In this regard, I am coming back from last week’s churchwide assembly so proud to be a Lutheran in the ELCA. As a church we are doers of the word. At this past assembly we committed to raising $10 million dollars over the next three years to support the ELCA’s HIV/AIDS strategy; we approved the development of a joint venture with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod to fight malaria in Africa; we called for comprehensive immigration reform, and an end to immigration raids like the one last year in Postville, Iowa until such reform is completed; we called for quality, affordable healthcare for all people; we sent aid and assistance to the Lutheran Church in Taiwan as it struggles to support its community in the wake of the typhoon that hit earlier this month, the worst of its kind in fifty years.
The resources we send to the synod out of our benevolence support these actions. Taken up with the gifts of the larger community of 4.7 million ELCA Lutherans in the United States, we are making a difference in the lives of others. We are providing direct assistance, and we are calling for policy changes that will prevent future suffering and more justly distribute our society’s goods.
In his address to the assembly, the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, the Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko of Tanzania said, “If I were to go to heaven tonight, and God gave me an audience for six minutes, I may have a chance to gossip about those people called Lutherans in the ELCA…I would say, ‘God, those people love their church…God, those people are very generous…God, those people are fantastic in volunteerism…God, send the Holy Spirit to keep them together.’”
That is the task that faces us as a church, to stay together. And I don’t mean this only in the immediate sense of the anxiety that is gripping the ELCA in the wake of its votes last week to allow for recognition of same-gender relationships and the rostered ministry of persons in such relationships. I mean, that is the task that always faces the church – to call people from all walks of life into the washed and fed community of Jesus Christ, the community gathered at font and rail, where everyone is welcome and there is always enough. That has always been our task, to stay together in the midst of such wild, such wonderful, such messy diversity – in our denomination, in our own congregation, in our neighborhood and in the world.
That is the difference our faith is supposed to make in our lives. It is supposed to provide us with such confidence in God’s limitless and unfettered love that we can be sustained as we work to make that love known to all people. That is hard work, not work that makes us righteous, but the right work for those who have been known and loved by God. The right work for all of us.
Ani sings it best,
Because we know we can’t sit back / and let people come to harm / we owe them our lives. / Each breath is recycled from someone else’s lungs / our enemies are the very air / our enemies are the air.
We’re looking for the holes / the holes in your jeans / because we want to know / are they worn out in the seat / or are they worn out in the knees?