Sunday, September 6, 2015

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, 14-18
Mark 7:(24-30) 31-37

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all.

The writers of the lectionary occasionally carve out certain verses in the midst of a passage. The reasons for this are varied. It often seems obvious that they have done so because those verses include some harsh or difficult saying. I've often said that it bothers me that they do so because it seems as if they have removed any sense of our sinfulness. As I prepare for this writing on these days, I always look at those verses because sometimes the key to the text is actually found there.

I once heard a lecture by an expert in liturgical things, and he said that those verses are not removed simply because we have become offended by the idea of sin. Instead, he said, the verses are not read because the focus of the entire lectionary is centered on another perspective. In other words, the entire passage may be about one thing, and the removed texts may be a side note about something completely different. There are times when the scripture writings insert a thought in the middle of the text, that is important, but not always pertinent to the whole.

In today's case, the three verses expound upon verse 10, but the passage as a whole is about how we judge others. This is not a passage about eternal judgment, but about how we treat our neighbors based on our understanding of their lives. James focuses on the difference between how the rich and the poor are treated. We cozy up to the rich because we know that they can be of some benefit to us, but we ignore the poor because there is nothing they can do for us.

What I found interesting about the missing verses is the two commandments James decided to use in this comparison. "For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou dost not commit adultery, but killest, thou art become a transgressor of the law." We know that these things are wrong. Even in modern America where too many people are frivolous with their love, renaming adulterous behavior and justifying certain infidelities as being harmless, we admit that adultery and murder are wrong. We have a little more trouble with some of the other commandments, however. Do we not covet? Do we not have idols? Do we not steal and cheat and lie? Oh, we don't rob banks or scam our neighbors, but that little white lie is still a lie. I once knew a woman who justified keeping the extra dollar a cashier gave her by saying, "It was her mistake and God knew I needed that dollar today." She praised God for her sinful behavior instead of considering that He was watching her dishonesty. She accepted His grace without admitting her sinfulness. Where is her faith?

Faith does not justify sin. Faith admits our sinfulness and trusts in God's mercy. Faith recognizes that we are sinners in need of a Savior and that Jesus Christ is the one who has saved us. We might be able to point to a good life, but there are truly none of us who are good. Our good works will never save us, but James asks, "Do we have faith if we do not live as God has called us to live?" Do we have faith if we justify our sin? Do we have faith if we treat people according to what we see on the outside? Do we have faith if we seek what is best for ourselves rather than doing that which God expects of us?

When James asks "Can faith save you?" in relation to the good works he is describing, he isn't suggesting that good works will save a person. What he is saying is that those who are saved, those who live in the faith that comes from grace, those people will have the same mercy on those whom they see that need to be saved. When we see someone who is hungry or naked, we'll offer them what they need. It is not enough to wish them well in their hunger and nakedness. James writes, "If a brother or sister be naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; and yet ye give them not the things needful to the body; what doth it profit?"

Faith without works is a dead faith, not a living faith. Just as the God who comes to save us does so in an active and powerful way, so too we are sent into the world to be Godís hands and share His grace with others. Isaiah talks about the work God is going to do in the world. The eyes of the blind will be open, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a dear and the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy. God will take those who can't do things and make them people who can. Faith is about action. It is about seeing, hearing, leaping and singing! And then it is about going out in the world to help others see, hear, leap and sing. God gives us the faith and in that faith we do.

The first story in today's Gospel lesson is a bit odd because it seems so out of character for Jesus, however in this story we see Jesus teaching a lesson to those listening through a woman of great faith. Jesus knew her heart. He knew she was there because she believed. He knew that faith gave her a humble understanding of her place in the world but also the faith to know that God is merciful. She receives the mercy she seeks not because she deserves it, but because she seeks it from the One who can grant it. That is faith.

The Psalmist writes, "Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no hope." Instead we are called to trust in God who gives hope to those who look to Him for help. God is not limited, He will not perish. He has created the world and all that is in it. His presence transforms, brings healing and peace. He sets the prisoner free and feeds those who are hungry. "Jehovah preserveth the sojourners; He upholdeth the fatherless and the widow." God calls us to be His hands and His feet and His mouth in this world - to be His presence among those who need His grace.

James writes. "Hearken, my beloved brethren; did not God choose them that are poor as to the world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to them that love him?" Jesus didn't heal the ones who knew the prophecies and had memorized the Psalms. He didn't heal the ones who were righteous according to their own understanding, relying upon themselves for salvation. He spoke a word of hope to those who were weak and afraid.

I suppose it is natural to be drawn to those who have wealth. After all, people with wealth can get things done. If a wealthy person is happy, they might just do something that makes our life better in some way. Yet James asks, "Do you really manifest faith in Christ by showing favoritism to the rich?" By favoring the rich we trust in them more than we trust in our God to provide us what we need. This favoritism is divisive and judgmental. Even worse, however, is that we miss out on an even greater wealth in the hearts of the poor, for God has given them such a great measure of faith and love.

We who have been given mercy have been called to be merciful. This means that we don't judge one another by our outer appearances, but by our needs. Does your neighbor need a meal? A shoulder on which to cry? Do they need to be reminded of their failure to live up to God's expectations and that God has provided the way of salvation and forgiveness through Jesus Christ?

We all need grace and we have been called through faith to offer grace to one another. We all fail to keep the law; we all fail to honor God. We might not murder or even commit adultery, but we follow our hearts and satisfy ourselves even when it goes against God's Word. The good news is that Jesus came to fulfill the promises found in the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah.

Great and wonderful things will happen: the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk and the mute will shout for joy. The desolation of the wilderness will be transformed into a place of praise and beauty. Can you hear God's faith-filled people singing today's Psalm? "Praise the LORD, O my soul. I will praise the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live."

When we are weak and afraid, God speaks a word of hope into our lives. We are not what we know we should be and we see the imperfection of the world around us. We worry and wonder what will happen tomorrow. Can we be saved? We are reminded that God had not forsaken His people. He has come to bring healing and peace. In Him, despite our failure, hope is found in the Lord. We will fail. We will sin. But God has given us faith and has called us to a life of trust. He is transforming the world and has promised that the day will come when everything is right. Until that day, He invites us to be His hands and feet in this world, sharing His grace in word and deed, shining His light through a living faith that doesn't just speak, but does.

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