Sunday, September 9, 2012

Faith and works; grain and straw

Texts: James 2 1-10, 14-17 (faith without works is dead); Mark 7 27-37 (Jesus is challenged)

Three years ago today, I began work as a full-time preacher. That was in Didsbury Alberta where, from September 2009 until June 2010, I was a supply minister and student intern at Knox United Church. Although I had preached about 10 times during the two years leading up to this internship, those months as a student in Alberta marked my first experience as a full-time minister who, among other things, preached a sermon every week.

You may recall that the church follows a three-year reading cycle of Scripture readings called the Lectionary. So as I prepared for worship this Sunday, I realized that I have already written a sermon based upon the assigned reading for this Sunday -- three years ago for my first service in Didsbury.

This fact probably does not mean a lot to others here today, but for me it is a big deal. I am cheered to approach a set of readings for the second time; and indeed, this sermon is based on the one I delivered three years ago in Alberta. But I hasten to add that my plan is not to just recycle sermons from now on. For one, I have only preached through two years of the three year Lectionary cycle.

After I left Didsbury in June 2010, I took a year off from preaching to finish my Masters degree and to complete the other requirements for ordination. When I arrived here in Borderlands 14 months ago, most of the Lectionary readings were new to me; and this will be the case again for the 12 months starting next July when I tackle a third and final year of the Lectionary for the first time.

Then there is the fact that the Lectionary provides four readings for each Sunday, of which we only usually hear two, and only one of which usually provides the inspiration or springboard for a sermon.

More importantly, there is also the reality that each moment is different and that churches and ministers never stop changing. The context of this pastoral charge is different from the one in Didsbury and my understanding of any set of readings is also different. So today's sermon is based upon, but is hardly identical to the one I preached three years ago.

Today, I focus on the reading from James. The letter of James is a sharp call to action. It points out the injustice of empire and exploitation. It calls us to work for social justice and defend the poor. As such, James is probably a favourite book of the Bible for lot of people in the United Church. Our church is 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 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.

Luther didn't like the book of James, just like he didn't like the book of Revelation. Luther sometimes argued that both be removed from the Protestant Bible. But although Luther was a radical priest, even he didn't go that far. He kept both James and Revelation in the German Bible, despite his dismissal of them as straw-like . . .

During my year in Alberta and now here Borderlands, I have seen a lot more straw than previously in my life. For the third time this summer, I find myself living in a rural area during harvest. Lots of crops have been combined and then bailed. The landscape has filled up with well-organized straw.

I was given a tutorial on straw as I was preparing to leave Ontario for Alberta three summers ago. I spent a day with my two key mentors in the church on their rural property in southwestern Ontario. They are Rev. Peter Kingsbury, who until this past June worked for the London Conference office of the United Church, and Rev. Rivkah Unland who is the minister at St John's United in the festival city of Stratford.

Peter and Rivkah live in a beautiful stone farmhouse, 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 cut the wheat with his enormous combine. It seemed like an odd scene to me, but I guess Rivkah and Peter had become attached to this field of wheat and they wanted to mark its passing. After their neighbour had finished the row, he got out of his combine and came over to chat with us about the harvest, 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 sometimes 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 feed.

I should have known this since both my parents grew up on farms on the north shore of Lake Ontario. But I had 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 a summer 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 previous ignorance of straw as I pondered Luther's insult: "an epistle of straw." Didn't Luther know that straw, just like the seed or grain, has wonderful uses? Maybe his statement wasn't such an insult after all.

I know why Luther didn't like James. The key turning point in Luther's life -- his conversion from an existence of tortured guilt to one of grace and freedom -- involved reading the letters of Paul. Luther loved Paul's message of grace -- that God accepts us regardless of our sins or our actions. With a trusting faith, we are assured that God loves and saves all of us. Despite the impossibility of fulfilling all the requirements of religious rules, grace is available at every moment of our lives. This is St. Paul's wonderful message -- we are saved by grace through faith.

James, however, writes that faith without deeds is dead. Does this statement contradict Paul? I don't think so. 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. He is saying that despite our inevitable shortcomings, we can trust God. Grace and healing are always available to us. James and Paul don't say the same things. Instead, they complement each other; and I am glad that both their voices are in the Bible. We have much to learn from both of them.

And now a few word son today's reading from Mark -- If anything in the Bible illustrates Luther's point that it is not possible to be free of sin at all times, it might be the story of Jesus' encounter with a 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 Gentile 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 like us, Jesus could be tired and in pain. Like us, he could sometimes 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 foreign mother in his Gospel. But I am glad the story is there. I believe that it gives us a more rounded view of Jesus.
The Bible is an amazing collection of books, and an endlessly rich resource for our work. It includes four contrasting Gospel narratives; it includes letters from Paul, James, 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 the Bible as thirsty pilgrims. We come searching for living water, and for an ancient mirror into our modern dilemmas. I love our joint explorations of the stories in the Bible and the light they shed on our lives today.

As with Luther, some books of the Bible might seem like straw to us: useful in some ways, but not essential. Other parts, such as Paul's message that we are saved by grace through faith, might seem more like grain to us: essential nutrition, a pearl of great price, the best news that we have ever heard.

In looking at the tug of war between James and Paul, I side with Luther. Although I love James' call for social justice, I could not bear to live without the knowledge that God's grace saves us despite our sins. This grace is revealed to us most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ.

Faith in God's grace gives me strength and hope to go on. It is the foundation of any acts I might undertake to try to make this a better community or world.

Straw and grain grow together, and go together. We don't have to choose between them. But if I had to choose, I'd choose the grain, which for me is the good news of grace; the good news that we are all safe in the hands of Jesus.

Thanks be to God.


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