Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Sometimes there are readings from the lectionary that come up which are so good and clear, that it might actually be advisable for the preacher just to read it; shut up; then quietly pack things up and go home.
Our reading from the Epistle of James is exactly like this. In fact, the whole epistle is pretty good, and if it were published just on its own, it could be used as a guidebook for how people of faith should live. Of course, Martin Luther didn’t much care for it, because it seems to deny the idea that we are justified by faith rather than works.
However, I think more rightly that it offers us an understanding of the necessity for works that speak of a life transformed by faith.
Anyway, the letter draws from the earliest known teachings of Jesus’, which helps scholars to date it at least before 70 CE. So what we’re reading is not simply an interpretation of what Jesus taught, but likely even the result of practical experience with Jesus.
Its style relies on a deep love of the Law and tradition, as well as draws the ethereal and spiritual into the daily and the practical; making it very instructional for the young Christian community of the First Century.
James, the apparent author, was certainly well known to the early followers of Jesus—in fact, he was the one who officiated the Jerusalem council that we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. This was when the Apostles were trying to figure out what to do with all of us Gentiles who were coming into this new faith in Jesus…
James was also respected as a leader in the Early Church, and we see this in the way that Peter shows deference to him at the Jerusalem council.
This James isn’t to be confused with the brother of John, our patron. However, as to what James means about being the brother of Jesus…well, there are a whole slew of speculations including James being the son of Joseph from a previous marriage; James being a close relative to Jesus’ earthly family; or most likely James was the son of Mary and Joseph, making he and Jesus brothers.
Now, for those of you who were hoping that I would pack up and go home at this point; I fear you’ll be disappointed. Because, perhaps against my better judgment, I do plan to speak a bit about this reading…sorry.
Anyway, James begins the passage by making it clear that acts of generosity are not simple things, because they come down from God, the father of stars and angels, whose light never fades like other heavenly bodies. And this is set against an earlier statement about how temptation and sin lead to destruction and death.
He then goes on to say that by God we’re given birth through the word—meaning not only the birth of humanity through God’s creative word, but also the rebirth that we’re given through Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word of God.
Now all of this may sound lovely and transcendent, but what follows makes it very clear that all of this (while it may not seem practical) no less has practical implications for how we’re to behave.
James says, you must be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…even for those of us who enjoy ‘righteous anger’ it’s hard to argue with the sense of that.
But he says, we’re to rid ourselves of sordidness and rank growth of wickedness—I think he forgot to add that this is also expected in election years. Instead, we’re to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.
Finally, we’re told to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…if any are hearers and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror…and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
The point is that it’s not enough to claim some deep ontological change in our lives—there has to be evidence, or incarnation of that change. Simply put, if we claim a faith that challenges and changes us, our lives and actions should show it.
Those of us clergy who sit around and talk about how Christianity is changing, and mourn the decline of mainline denominations are mistaken when we pretend that we don’t know why. We’ve spent decades resting on laurels and being the churches of society. We’ve taken credit for the work of a few who were part of the work of the Underground Railroad; we’ve hung pictures of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in prominent places in our churches, and claimed a piece of the Civil Rights Movement.
While that is and has been necessary—it hasn’t been a unified effort. In fact, there were times when it was hard to tell which side the church was fighting for…
But now we’re suddenly surprised that people aren’t joining us in our mission. We’re offended that people point to the Church and talk about hypocrisy (an allegation that I find very unfair—especially when there’s always room for one more hypocrite).
The argument of James, however, is not that we are not justified by our faith—rather that our faith is evidenced in our action. Ours as a true and lively faith is one that continually calls us to action in the world—action not of social justice (only) or any other charged term—but action that is defined as Christian charity; our duty to God; our continued participation in Christ’s redemption of the world; and above all faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And while some of these acts of faith look like social justice, I can assure you that they are a different thing, because they are acts which are the effulgence of a life marked and changed by faith. These acts are responses to a grateful reception of unconditional love, and the promise of new life. Simply put, we give and work because we have received and are beneficiaries of Jesus’ mercy. In this way, none of us can claim a right to terms, nor can we boast about our adherence to a particular aspect of the Gospel.
We’re not allowed to call our good works prophetic, or glory in the good work that we do for the sake of more membership. Because, the beauty of a reading like this is that it leaves vacuous holes in our self-righteousness. It reminds us that we cannot be people of faith in name only—that by the Incarnational nature of our religion we cannot exist with integrity if we are not actively living as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in the world.
Now, the Epistle of James shouldn’t make us feel bad about ourselves. We shouldn’t feel like we’ve neglected our call to Christian faith. Instead, we should see it for what it is—an admonition—the shot in the arm that the whole Church needs to be faithful in her mission as Christ’s Body. This is a reminder and an opportunity to dust off our talents and gifts and put them to work for the sake of the Kingdom of God. And it’s in fidelity to our Baptismal call, and our identity as those born of the word of truth that we can begin to show the meaning and reality of that gift by our actions—actions that are not only our gifts of generosity, but are gifts given by God.
As much as it may have been advisable for me to have shut up earlier; I have to admit that the Epistle of James honestly started something in me. It started a deep sense of longing to see this parish work toward its full potential. It made me see that many of the right things are in place for us to be an essential and vibrant part of this community and our diocese. But what it will require is that none of us only hears readings like this one from James, and does nothing. Instead, we have to hear it, let it reflect our true selves, and be inspired by it. That word inspired (for all that it gets over-used) is exactly the right one here, because its etymology refers to being breathed into—just like the breath of God that turned molded clay into a living being in Genesis. It’s like the breath of life called by Ezekiel from the four winds that brought a valley of dry bones to life again. And it’s the same inspiration—the same God of life breathing into us now through his word. (Breathe in/breathe out)
But having heard this word, and breathing the breath of life, will we walk away and forget? The choice is ours, I suppose.
Last Saturday, Tristan, Gareth, Charity and I were sitting on the couch watching Saturday morning cartoons. As young children are want to do, our boys were up very early, and Charity and I were doing our best in the lull to fortify ourselves with coffee.
Well, as we were watching cartoons, a commercial started, and Tristan started to sing the theme song for the commercial—but then stopped himself. He looked at us and said that he really didn’t like commercials because the songs would get stuck in his head and he didn’t like that, because they wanted him to buy stuff he didn’t want.
Without realizing it, Tristan stumbled onto a pretty important truth—namely that there are some very smart people in advertising working to get us to consume. And in a culture that is already overwhelmed by media and advertising, the methods for getting our attention have become quite strategic.
In 2004, the PBS news show, Frontline, did a piece called “The Persuaders.” If you look online, you can still watch the entire program, and it’s eye-opening…
The point of this piece was to talk about this very interesting shift in advertising from a time when advertisers were trying to prove the efficacy and usefulness of their product—to suddenly working to create a culture, and a kind of spirituality around products. Advertising went from talking about how a product was tangibly better at what it did—to talking about what a product meant…
So, a car is no longer just a car, but it’s an expression of a culture—it’s something elemental—and, of course, they claim all of this while never actually showing the car. A random guy on a couch getting passersby to start crying is supposed to get us to buy a certain kind of tissue. Apparently impromptu emotional catharsis is somehow related to what I use to blow my nose.
All of this is done with the idea that advertisers could forge a kind of spiritual bond with a cynical consumer base. Brands do this by hiring consultants who sit around and try to “channel their inner brand.” So in the end, a product would become a kind of totem for expressing particular aspects of our lives.
At one point in the program we’re introduced to a man by the name of Clotaire Rapaille, a man who was a respected psycho-therapist in the 1970s who left his practice to work with advertisers.
In this work, funded by a number of these advertising groups, Rapaille did a long term study to figure out a consumer’s hidden desires. His belief was that to know these hidden desires was the key to making a deep connection with consumers in advertising. Of course, whatever those key components are, they weren’t revealed in the program. All the same, it shows to what lengths advertisers will go just to get us to buy.
The interesting thing is that it works… There was a similar article that I read a while back that talked about how the cigarette brand Lucky Strikes changed fashion and American culture at the same time. Apparently during the Second World War, as more women were entering the workforce; more women also began smoking. With this in mind, the advertising executives began trying to figure out how to capitalize on this shift—how to get more women smoking. At the time, Lucky Strikes sold in a green package. So, their solution was make the color green the fashionable color of the season.
Well, back then the center of fashion was really only Paris, France—there was no other place in the world where fashion trends were established. That is, until the ad executives at Lucky Strike decided to make New York City a center of fashion by holding a fashion show, and set the green trend that would eventually get more of their products sold.
Honestly, when I hear this kind of stuff; I get kind of frustrated. I don’t like to think or feel like I’ve been duped—because that’s how it feels. I don’t like the idea that my choice of fashion, or music, or even my politics could be the summation of some advertising think tank who had “channeled their inner brand.”
But then when we consider the amount of media that we’re exposed to: billboards, television and radio ads, fashionable clothes with corporate names and logos—it’s a surprise that we’ve not experienced overload. And for all of the constant barrage of advertising that we are hit with, there are only more salvos of advertising waiting to catch our attention and draw us in…
So in the midst of all of this white noise, how can we even begin to hear words that are spirit and are life? How are we supposed to understand the promise of eternal life given in Christ when we’re promised the same thing in products?
It might seem like an easy enough answer, because we’re intelligent people who can see through the glamour of advertising. Like Tristan, we know that advertisers are working hard to get us to buy stuff we don’t want. I think we know this (pointing to head), but I’m not sure if we know this (pointing to heart).
When Jesus comes to the end of his teaching about being the bread of life, inevitably he explains that eating his flesh and drinking his blood is the way in which we are to receive this life that he promises. Like us, these disciples who were listening knew that he wasn’t being literal—but we have to remember that they had followed him to get more fish and bread. While they didn’t confuse Jesus’ spiritual meaning in his teaching, they were however disconcerted to find out that his mission was about bringing salvation—not free miraculous food.
Their real issue then, was realizing that discipleship and the promise of eternal life would require a drastic change of life. And if they weren’t able to get past that, there was little hope that they would ever hear the words of life and of spirit.
The sad thing is that our culture tries to seduce us into the same trap. I mean, if I can buy a new car or a certain kind of tissue, couldn’t I have a more whole life without having to take in Jesus? Without all of the tough things that discipleship requires?
Sure, it seems like an easy choice, but it really isn’t. When I consider the things in my own life—the choices of how I use my time; I have to humbly admit that my selfish use of time often outweighs the selfless. I’m guilty of coveting cool technology, and cell phones that are better than mine. I admit to wishing I owned a car that had all of its wheel covers and doesn’t rattle. Not that these are terrible things, mind you, but they serve to distract me from attending to the words of life and spirit. They tempt me to lose my focus on my responsibilities to my relationship with Jesus and with others. And, like most of us, I confuse snake oil and placeboes for the true bread of life.
But then there are readings like today’s that help to sort me out. Unapologetically, Jesus asks these fair weather disciples “Did I offend you?”(In my head Jesus sounds like Samuel L. Jackson when he says this). And of course, those who couldn’t hear the words of life through the noise of their own lives went away.
Jesus then turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you also want to leave?” But with the sincerity and impetuousness that only Peter could muster, he says what I think all of us hope to say: “Where else can we go? You have the words of life…”
In our modern, busy lives we’re given every opportunity to neglect our faith. And as we can see there are any number of companies and advertisers who offer us excuses and alternatives to lives of discipleship in Jesus Christ.
It’s up to us, then, to be attentive to our relationship with Jesus in the midst of a world that does its best to grab our attention and sell us counterfeit. For all of their promises, however, what we know in our hearts is that in the end there is no other bread that nourishes the soul and gives eternal life—and there are no other words which are spirit and life. To understand this, I believe, is really our ‘hidden desire,’ because to be free and loved and accepted is the cry of all of humanity (perhaps even all of Creation). And where else can we go when the words of the spirit that we long for, and the meaning of life we hope to see are found in Jesus Christ, the true bread of life?
There is a Benedictine vow, which is called “Conversatio Morem.” The best translation of this term is something like ‘conversion of life,’ and it has this sense that in life we have conversion by our vows and most importantly, by our participation in the life of God.
I think if we consider how our life with God is more of a journey than one decisive moment; we might understand this idea of conversion of life as a continuous, on-going process. Because as many of us know, our lives are marked by any number of conversion experiences along the way, meaning: God is constantly pursuing us as beloved children.
In my own life, I might give about 8% of it to conversion moments—and while that might sound like a small percentage, you have understand that there just aren’t so many “defining moments” in life. Really, there are just a few here and there to punctuate all of the other moments—because, of course, it’s the living afterward that changes the course of life beyond the conversion ‘moment.’
I think this is the difficulty of conversion, that it is a process, and it’s likely that we won’t ever see its fullness in this life. What’s harder is that the growth in-between can be painful and messy because it happens in a messy world where painful things happen. Since the growth happens in the midst of life, it forces us then to pose our experiences with God against tragedy and all of the other things in life which make us second guess our faith.
For example, just this past week, a man in Wisconsin walked into a Sikh Temple and opened fire, killing 6 people who had come to worship. This of course comes less than a month after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado where James Holmes opened fire into a crowd at a movie theater killing 12 people and wounding 58. It’s a stark reminder of how dangerous our world can be, and more evidence against our claim at being a civilized society.
The reasons may have been different, but the violence in the acts, and the disturbing aftermath linger oppressively—for all of us.
No matter how much the media tempts us to become desensitized to loss of life by their aggrandizing and voyeurism; people of faith cannot so easily let it go… Because we’re forced to ask what all of it means in relation to Providence, and it questions the validity of our own experiences with God.
However, our faith is far from being an opiate to the pain of the world. We’re not given easy answers to difficult questions—nor are we allowed to hide our heads in sanctimonious sand. Because at its deepest level, our faith is brutally honest about pain and suffering. It never ignores the messiness of the world, but subsumes it, and absorbs it into itself so that the hopeful resolution in redemption can be realized. It’s the reason that we stand in the shadow of a crucified God, and is the reason we call ourselves by his name—Christians, or followers of Christ.
The point is, as people of the Christian faith, we never shy away from difficult or painful things, but instead deal with them by grace—a kind of grace that has seen numerous generations through equally impossible situations. Because somehow by the Spirit of God, and our faith community, we find a way forward. Even if we cannot make sense of tragedy, we don’t ever work through it alone. Our experiences with God, and God’s continued participation in our lives never leaves us abandoned to try to make sense of these things. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, and those around us, we can begin to re-enter a kind of conversion of life cycle; wherein we begin to understand not whether there is some purpose to the tragedy, but that even in such tragic situations, God joins us in our pain. And through the continued work of the Holy Spirit what we face can become a kind of conversion experience.
In time, at best, we can look back at pain and tragedy and mark our own growth from it—our own resolve and strength. Certainly we’ll continue to mourn the lost, but with God’s help, I believe that we grow to accept the hope of resurrection as a real and viable hope.
Jesus told the crowds, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” I would say in light of all that has occurred in the past couple of months, and happens continually on different scales all over the world; we are a very hungry and thirsty people. But a couple of the verses that are omitted in today’s reading are very important in regard to this reality. Because Jesus says, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away…And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
Today, like every day, we have the opportunity to be changed—to experience conversion. But such an opportunity is only viable so long as we have the courage to understand our faith as our strength in adversity. What’s more, if we feel that we lack that faith and strength—we have to know that others may lend us some of theirs. And if that isn’t enough, we have the promise that we will never be driven away of lost, because we have been given to Jesus Christ, and we belong to him forever.
Sometimes it’s just too easy to pick on the people who surround Jesus. We’re told in the Gospels that wherever he went, by his preaching and his reputation as a faith healer, that he drew a crowd. And time and again—no matter what mysteries Jesus reveals to them, or even what miraculous things he does in their presence—they continue to completely miss the point.
Today’s reading is no different. We find Jesus having crossed the lake, and this group of people who were just fed by the loaves and fish are coming to find him. At first glance we may think that these people were honestly interested in Jesus’ mission. But it’s soon pointed out by Jesus that what they’re really after is more bread.
It’s even a little harsh the way that things go down. Jesus not only calls them out for only being interested in more bread—but he goes on to tell them that they’re missing the point—that it’s a faithful relationship with God that is necessary, and that the ‘bread’ that they should be seeking is an eternal thing.
While they may not have gotten what Jesus was saying, they are clever enough to bring up Moses and the manna that fed Israel in the wilderness. They even quote Scripture, apparently. But here again, Jesus has to remind them that not only was it not about the bread (even heavenly bread), it was about a faithful relationship with God.
Now, I don’t know whether or not metaphor as a literary device was completely lost on these people—or if they really were so hard-headed as to miss the eternal gift that Jesus was offering. Either way, it makes me feel a little bad for them…and then I suppose picking on them is a bit like punching a sad clown—right? I mean, if you punch a sad clown—he’s already sad—what good does it do?
Well, not much, actually, as it turns out. In fact, the more that I try to dig into these fools, the more I begin to realize what it would be like to be in their position. I don’t have to try too hard and before I know it, I’m just as confounded by Jesus as any one of them—and I’m sure I’m not alone.
Because even as people who know the end of the story, we still get it all muddled. And in some ways, just like these people in Jesus’ time—we start to think that it’s all about the bread.
It’s kind of ironic. After all, we have a couple thousand years of studying and understanding all of this stuff. And even though we have some concept of what Jesus means by Love God, love your neighbor; take care of the widow and orphan; don’t swim right after you eat—we’re still apparently not all that great at it.
It kind of makes me wonder what it would be like if our places were reversed with these nameless crowds that we find in the Gospels; If somehow they were reading an account of us and our struggle to figure out Jesus in our own lives.
Maybe they’d say something like, what’s wrong with these people? How can these people have the gift of the Holy Spirit and still be at war? How can they have an understanding of what it means to be a light to the world when their cities are full of violence and poverty? How could they claim to understand the temporal nature of things, yet still abide in such an inequitable system?
One answer is that we’ve allowed metaphor as a literary device to be completely lost on us. And another is that we keep thinking that it’s about the bread.
Because for many of us our politics are about sound bites and clever Facebook postings about tax returns and long form birth certificates. For some a public profession of faith is about waiting two hours to buy a chicken sandwich… All the while we’re being duped into dividing, self-selecting and infuriating one another at the whim of politicians and corporations. So that sometimes even when we think we’re not acting like it’s about the bread, that we’re really rooted in what is true—we’re actually acting like it’s about the bread.
And somehow our reason and our identity as the redeemed, beloved of the Risen Christ goes up in a cloud of media smoke.
But y’know, the best news about all of this is that the answer to all of our issues is very simple. It’s about loving, faithful relationship with God—but that’s only the start. Because once we begin to really work on that, we find that we’re inevitably drawn to faithful loving relationship with those around us.
I know what you’re probably thinking: Matt you’re beating a dead horse—you’ve used this relationship with God thing before. And you’d be right, but as long as we need to be reminded of it, I’ll keep preaching it.
Because as I watch the civility of our country begin to crumble and any number of people slipping through the cracks: the poor, the middle class, and anyone else along the spectrum; it makes me realize that a lot of us are just a little lost. We’ve just forgotten what it means to be family—to be children in the family of God, sharing the blood of the Risen Christ as our common relation. We’ve forgotten that in casting our slings, arrows and political views at one another that they are hitting and harming our own family—Christ’s own beloved. And that should bother us, I think.
Right before Jesus goes out to the garden to pray, and then be arrested and finally crucified; he leaves his disciples with a final command. Jesus says,“ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It’s from this command that we get the name for Maundy Thursday in Holy Week (obviously). And it’s the time when we’re taught to wash one another’s feet.
But this command to love one another is just that—it’s a commandment just like the ten that were given to Moses on Sinai. So in the same way, it’s meant to guide us as God’s people. More importantly, it’s by this love that we’re to be known as Christ’s disciples.
Like I said before, it’s not about the bread, it’s about loving relationship. Understandably it’s a tougher thing than it sounds. But for the sake of our community, our country and our world, I hope we don’t miss the point, and more importantly, I hope we’re not too hard-headed to miss the eternal gift that Jesus offers.