Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sermon of Straw? Sep 6, 2009

Riches for ministry

Sermon preached by Ian Kellogg on Sept 6, 2009
Texts: James 2: 1-17 * Mark 7: 24-37

I was pleased to see that today's assigned readings from the New Testament were the passages from James and Mark that I have just read. I think that they provide a useful place from which to begin my eight months of work here as a student minister at Knox United. Both of the readings come with some controversies. And this morning, I will briefly touch on these to help us think about all the riches God has given us to do our work as a church.

The letter of James, including the passage read here today, is a sharp call to action. James is all about pointing out the injustice of empire and exploitation. He calls us to work for social justice and defend the poor. As such, James is probably a favourite book of the Bible for lots of United Church folk. As a denomination, we are often in the thick of struggles to make this broken world a better place, a world where the poor are raised up and the rich are brought to account. And I certainly count myself among those who yearn for and organize for justice.

And yet Martin Luther, the great hero of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, called the Letter of James "an epistle of straw." This was in Luther's 1522 preface to his German translation of the Bible. By this phrase, he meant that for him James had little substance -- it was all roughage and no protein. He certainly didn't like the book of James, just like he didn't like the book of Revelation. At certain points, Luther wrote that perhaps both books should be removed from the Protestant Bible. But though Luther was a radical priest, even he didn't go that far. He kept both James and Revelation in the Lutheran Bible, and they have remained there for all of us ever since. And for that fact, I am glad . . .

I have been thinking about straw a lot since I landed in Alberta last week. In the beautiful drive between my room in Olds and the church in Didsbury, I have watched the harvest move into high gear. Lots of wheat has been combined and then bailed. The landscape is filling up with well-organized straw.

I was given a tutorial on straw last month as I was preparing to leave Ontario. I spent a day and night with my two key mentors in the church on their rural property in southwestern Ontario. They are Rev. Peter Kingsbury, who works for the London Conference office of the United Church, and Rev. Rivkah Unland who is now the minister at St John's United in the festival city of Stratford.

In the last few years, Peter and Rivkah have been able to put their lives together in a beautiful stone farmhouse, which is about a 20 minute drive south of Stratford. The evening I was there, and just as we had finished barbecuing dinner, Rivkah had us rush to the fence at the north end of their property. The beautiful field of wheat that had been growing on the neighbouring farm all spring and summer was about to be combined. So the three of us took our drinks to the fence and saluted their neighbour as he mowed down the wheat with his enormous combine. It seemed like an odd scene to me, but I guess Rivkah and Peter had become quite attached to this field of wheat during the summer and they wanted to mark its passing. After he had finished the row, the farmer got out of his combine and came over to chat with us about the harvest and the weather and such things.

It was then that Peter gave me his tutorial on straw. I hadn't really understood that combining the grain and bailing the straw were often two separate processes; that gathering the grain and laying down the straw could come first, and that bailing could come later. He also explained that while the grain is obviously useful, the straw is also useful -- for things like animal bedding and animal feed. I should have known this since both my parents grew up on farms on the north shore of Lake Ontario. But I've always lived in cities, either in eastern Ontario as a boy, or in Toronto as an adult. And unlike all of my male cousins, my older brother Paul and I were the two teenage rebels who refused to spend one or more summers on my grandfather and uncle's dairy farm. I now regret not spending at least one summer on the family farm. My younger brother Andrew did spend two summers on the farm when he was a teenager, and Andrew has always seemed steadier and more grounded than me and Paul. Perhaps it was that brief farming experience?

Anyway, I thought of my ignorance of straw this week as I also remembered Luther's insult: "an epistle of straw." Didn't Luther know that straw, just like the seed or grain, has wonderful uses? In fact, in Tuesday's Didsbury Review, which Charlene gave me on Friday, I read an article that described how Didsbury business owner Jason Whitfield has pioneered a new method of creating straw-bale houses. I look forward to seeing his model home here and wish him every success. So maybe Luther's statement wasn't such an insult after all.

But I know why Luther didn't like James, despite its many great qualities. The key turning point in Luther's life -- his conversion from an existence of tortured guilt to one of grace and freedom -- was his encounter with the letters of Paul. Luther loved Paul's message of grace: that God accepts us all regardless of our sins or our actions. With a trusting faith, we can be assured that God loves us, that we are all saved, and that despite the impossibility of fulfilling all the requirements of Jewish religious law or of always leading a blameless life, grace is available at every moment of our lives. It is a wonderful message -- we are saved by grace through faith.

James, however, writes that faith without deeds is dead. Does this really contradict Paul? I would argue that it does not, but I won't go into all the ins and outs here. (You know, when I spoke to my mother on the phone this week, she advised that I keep my first sermon short. Probably good advice, eh?)

So in short, I believe that James is looking at faith more from the side of belief. He is saying that what we do is more important that what we believe. Paul on the other hand is looking at faith more from the side of trust, and he is saying that despite our inevitable shortcomings, we can trust in God. Grace and healing are always available to us. James and Paul, though they don't say exactly the same things, complement each other; and I am very glad that both their voices are in the Bible. We have much to learn from both of them.

And much more briefly on the reading from Mark -- if anything in the Bible illustrates Luther's point that it is not possible to be loving and free of sin at all times, it might be the story of Jesus' encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman and her sick child.

In this Gospel story, Jesus is tired and has withdrawn from the crowds. But a Gentile woman finds him and begs him to save her daughter. The shocking thing is that Jesus insults her. He implies that Gentiles are dogs and therefore do not deserve the healing that Jesus offers to his fellow Jews. Nevertheless she persists and reminds Jesus that even dogs are given crumbs from the family table. Jesus accepts her rebuke and announces that her daughter is healed.

It is a story that shows that Jesus could be tired, irritable -- perhaps even racist. And yet the grace in the story is that Jesus accepts the rebuke of the Greek mother. He learns from his confrontation with her. He remembers that God's love is not just for the Jews but for everyone.

There are many ways to interpret this striking story. I take it as a clear example that Jesus, while fully divine, was also fully human. As a human being just like us, Jesus could be tired and in pain. Just like us, he could express common prejudices. But graciously, just like us, he could grow into his full divinity and exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, which for both James and Paul, would include inclusion, love, and the struggle for a better world.

Perhaps we might wish that Mark, and Matthew after him, hadn't included this story of Jesus and the Greek mother in his Gospel. But I am glad that the story is there. I believe that this story gives us a more rounded view of who Jesus is and of the world in which he lived.

As you know, the Bible is an amazing collection of books, and an endlessly rich resource for our work. The Bible includes four contrasting Gospel narratives; it includes letters from Paul, and James, and John, and Peter, each with their own flavor. It has love poems and songs; stories of violence and calls for non-violence; laments and shouts of praise. It is ancient, mysterious, and sometimes impossible to translate or understand. But it is our heritage and we return to it week after week. We come to it as thirsty pilgrims, searching for living water, searching for an ancient mirror into our modern dilemmas, searching for our own voice amid the many varied voices of the Biblical authors. We treasure it; and I look forward to our joint exploration of the stories in the Bible over the next eight months.

Beyond the books of the Bible, we have been gifted with our Christian tradition with all its warts and glories; all its sinners and saints. We have our denomination, the glorious and troubled and grace-filled United Church of Canada. But most of all, we have congregations and neighbours.

In my small experience of congregational life -- growing up as preacher's kid in eastern Ontario, singing in the choir at Kingston Road United Church in Toronto, and working one day a week at another east-end Toronto church for my field placement class last year -- my trust in the power of individual congregations has continually grown. Each congregation, I believe, is a gem in the rough, with many facets. Already in my first week here at Knox, I have glimpsed a few of the brilliant streams of light that connect people here with each other and with the wider community we serve.

I feel deeply grateful and humbled to be asked to serve along with you this year. Together and with God's help, may we continue to strive to uphold the faith, hope and love that is our calling and our deepest yearning.

Thanks be to God . . . Amen

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