Monday, September 04, 2006

Sept. 3 Sermon, "Doers of the Word"

Sermon Texts:
James 1: 17-27
John 1: 1-14

The Word: This concept is a double edged sword in our traditon. The Word has several meanings—so how are we to know how to hear it when we hear it mentioned in Scripture? Sometimes when we refer to the “Word of God” we are referring to Scripture, as when I lift up the Bible after I read the scripture lesson and say, “This is the Word of God for the people of God.” Other times when we hear the “Word” of God, such as in the Gospel of John, there is a more mystical meaning that is intended.
The Word in some cases is the second part of the Trinity. It is in the beginning with God and it is God. Through it all things come into being. Here we are thrown back to the image of Creation, when God creates the world how? By speaking! The Word is literally the tangible, hearable, aspect of God that we are told comes to us in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word is given life by the Breath—the Spirit sweeping over the watery womb of the Earth and in the incarnation of Jesus this same Spirit “covers” the watery womb of Mary. The Word cannot be articulated without the Breath, and in the same way, the One Who Speaks, the Word, and the Breath are intimately tied together in a Oneness we call the Trinity.
Today we begin looking at a new book in our scriptures. This book gives us Protestants headaches—so it is good that we do not shy away from it but instead struggle with it and grow from it. The book did not gain wide acceptance in the Western church until the 300s, and Martin Luther’s distaste for it was well known. (He called it “an epistle of straw.”) One problem with it is that it seemingly contradicts Paul’s theology of salvation best characterized in Galatians 2:16 “A person is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” James has a different take, saying in 2:24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
The letter of James was attributed to the brother of Jesus who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem at the time of Paul’s evangelism of the Greek world.
By studying Acts and James and some of the epistles of Paul, it seems likely that James was a voice of support for Christian converts observing the laws and customs of the Jewish faith. Yet he was not as convinced as the believing Pharisees or “Judaizers” that the law should be followed to a T by converts from another culture. So, what in the mind of James is the Law? He calls it the royal law and says that it is implanted in the heart of every human. He re-iterates his brother’s teaching in his dedication to this law. The law that holds salvation is Love, and it is characterized by mercy.
James criticizes religion that is overly spiritualized and individualized. James calls “worthless” the religion of those who merely hear the word. Religion in his mind is not merely hearing, but allowing the change in oneself that results from hearing that word. James urged the church to not merely hear and debate and proclaim—religion according to James isn’t what we say or confess as a result of hearing that Saving Word—it is about “Doing” that Word.
Last Sunday, Taylor reminded me of a scene from “White Men Can’t Jump” where Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson are in the car and Woody turns on Jimi Hendrix and starts strumming his air guitar and scrunching up his face in imitation of the great guitar player. Wesley Snipes takes offense to Woody’s light treatment of Jimi Hendrix and says, “Man, you just listen to Jimi—you don’t HEAR him!” Snipes is saying to Harrelson what James is saying to the church. To truly hear the Word is to be changed by the Word. As Snipes enacts the subtlety, twists, and turns of Jimi’s music on the basketball court, he proves that he truly “hears” Jimi.
James lifts up community and challenges us to practice a faith of rubber meeting the road. He boldly proclaims that true religion is caring for the orphans and widows—which was one of the chief practices of the early church.
For James, then, “the faith of Jesus” means living before God in a manner shaped by the words of Jesus, and above all by his declaration that loving the neighbor as oneself is the “royal law.” Jesus never asked his hearers, “Do you agree with me?” or “Does this sound reasonable to most of you?” or “Get my drift?” Jesus wanted more than mere agreement. Most of the time they called Jesus “Teacher,” but he seems to be about more than mere passing on of knowledge. What Jesus said was, “Follow me.” He was after discipleship, not just simple intellectual agreement.
Perhaps that’s why we tend to turn the gospel into some kind of intellectual problem. Upon hearing scripture, we tend to ask, “Now, how could that have happened?” Or, “Now let me think about that.” But scripture doesn’t just want to be understood. It longs to be put into action. So maybe that’s why we step back, ponder, think, consider, reflect when the Bible longs for us to get moving, get into the act, perform the text rather than just speak or hear it.
William Willamon, the bishop of N. Alabama writes,
Years ago I remember discussing with a group of lay people what they looked for in a good sermon. “I like a sermon which helps me to think about things in a new way,” was a predominate response. I like a sermon which engages my mind, which spurs my thinking and reflection.
That sounded good to me. After all, I like to preach interesting, engaging, thoughtful sermons — when I can! Yet the more I thought about it, I wondered if their response was not quite right. There really is something about us which loves to think that all worship is about is sitting, listening, taking in.
Agreement and understanding are not the problem. The problem might be letting the ideas that we celebrate here in church sink into our bones and muscles and compel them to action. If we say we feel something in our heart, then shouldn’t we also feel it in our fingertips? What will we do with that which we have said, sung, and heard? We’ve been given Good News, a liberating law, a Golden Rule. We have heard it, we know the right words—Can we be “Doers of the Word?”
John Wesley called this action of “Doing the Word” in the world “holiness.” Holiness was not simply acting prim and proper, it was not living with a look on your face like you’ve just sucked a dill pickle. Piety has become a negative word in our everyday language. “Oh, look at that man, acting so pious!” we say with distaste on our teeth. John Wesley knew piety as a positive attribute. It meant living a sincere life, living as authentically as we can, it meant living a life in accordance with the Good news that we have been given. It meant giving to others, it meant reaching out to those in need. It meant observing the sacraments and being nurtured by them, it meant speaking with love and kindness and gentleness and forgiveness. People of faith ruined our idea of piety when they started oppressing others with it. John Wesley knew it as a great freedom. And James knew it that way as well.
If we don’t practice what we preach, if we don’t live the word in our daily lives, and instead we simply hear the good news and nod our heads, we are like people who see themselves in a mirror and then upon turning away from the mirror forgetting what we look like. We don’t want to live this kind of forgetful life do we? We have an identity! The Word is implanted in our hearts, says James. We came into being through this Word of God! We are made in that image! God birthed us through this Word is how James proclaims it. Now—why would we want to do anything else but live in the acknowledgement of that Creative Word.
We are asked not only to put the ideals and ethics we find in Scripture, in the Law, into practice, we are asked to live as beings who know their Creator. Living in this understanding involves responding to people in need—because they too are birthed by that Word—they are the same as we are. It involves giving—because it is a reflection of the perfect gifts from the “Father of Lights,” according to James. Our God is a Giver of Gifts, a Creator of Possibilities, and if we want to live as people molded by the Word of this Giver who Created us, we should give with the same generosity.
There is a well known saying that keeps us preachers in check: “I’d rather see a good sermon than hear a good sermon.”
Willamon ended his meditation on this scripture with an account of how he responded to the inevitable compliments of his sermon:
“Pastor, that was a wonderful sermon,” said the parishioner at the door after the service. “That remains to be seen,” said the preacher.

No comments:

Post a Comment