Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sermon for August 30, 2009: "The Chasm"

Some notes: You may find that paragraph breaks and grammar are irregular; that's because I lay out the sermons so there are no sentence fragments from page to page, and I write like I speak: a middle-aged Southerner.

James 1:17-27
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

For our Gospel reading this morning, I'm not going to skip through like the Lectionary suggests, rather I am going to read the full, uninterrupted passage. So our Gospel reading is the Book of Mark, the seventh chapter, the first through the twenty-third verse.

Listen as God speaks:

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.
(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, 'Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban' (that is, an offering to God)-- then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this." Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable.

He said to them, "Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I worked for a number of years with a nonprofit ministry whose stated purpose was to bring all Christians of every denomination together to positively impact the lives of teenagers. The organization is quite successful, and operates in cities in all fifty states, but they've never really come close to fulfilling that stated purpose.

The problem is this: the ministry was founded by a conservative Evangelical Christian, and is run on conservative Evangelical principles. As a member of a mainline, less conservative denomination, every time I would try and involve Presbyterians or Catholics or the less conservative members of the Episcopal Church in ministry activities, I would confront what I call “The Chasm.”
The Chasm, you see, is that place created by sharp differences in theology – where, because your views on baptism are different on my views of baptism, we can't really work together in ministry. Where your views about women in ministry are different than my views, so we can't work together in ministry. Where your views on the process of salvation are different than mine, so we can't work together in ministry.

You may not know about The Chasm, because for most of us it doesn't really exist. We have friends and neighbors and even family members who come from a wide variety of faith traditions, and we get along just fine, thank you.

Still, most of us have seen The Chasm in operation in one way or another. Most of us have a couple of neighbors or coworkers or relatives who are really “out there,” don't we?

Maybe it's someone who is a dedicated Conservative Christian, horrified at the thought of you attending a church where not only are women included in the leadership of the church, but allowed to preach and to pastor! Aghast at the idea of baptizing infants! Dubious about your relationship with God because your church doesn't have an invitation at the end of every service!

Or maybe it's the person who is a dedicated Liberal Christian, who thinks Obama is too conservative, refers to God as “She,” is aghast that you don't eat organically grown foods, horrified that you shop at Wal-Mart, dubious about your worship service because it doesn't include a time for spontaneous interpretive dance, and is still angry that the PC(USA) stopped boycotting Taco Bell!

Our Gospel reading today pits Jesus against the Pharisees, an elite group of Fundamentalist Jews who were shocked that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, chagrined that he dared to pluck and eat some wheat from stalks when harvesting was clearly prohibited on Saturday, and aghast that his disciples dared to eat with ceremonially impure hands!

The Pharisees had taken the Law of Moses and, over the years, had reduced its overarching tenets to minutiae: how far it was permissible to walk on the Sabbath, how much you could carry, what things and people and activities were to be considered ceremonially clean and unclean. In theory, it was a good idea, because if one could not work on the Sabbath, then it was important to know how, exactly, to define “work,” wasn't it? Yet as time went on and the expectations for adhering to every one of the tenets which had been applied to every one of the Laws, fewer and fewer people were able to measure up to the expectations.
Those few who had the time and the financial and natural resources to be attentive to every point of doctrine considered themselves alone to be the “true” Jews. The rest, which included just about everyone in first-century Palestine, were called “People of the Dirt,” not quite as bad as a Samaritan or a Gentile or a leper, but just barely.

Jesus' response here is similar in theme to the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, where he goes on a rant that would make Dennis Miller hang his head in shame. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

What Jesus is confronting is theological purity turned putrid: where the details of doctrine overwhelm and become the focus of faith. Where justice and mercy apply only to those who think, act, and look like us. Where being right is more important than righteousness. Where law smothers love.

Now, most of you know that I am a complete and utter geek for theology, and especially Reformed Theology. So the statement I am about to make may shock you: there are contexts and situations in life where theology does not matter.
Where theology, in fact, gets in the way. With the Pharisees, their theology got in the way of justice and mercy and faithfulness. To the Pharisees, it was theologically sound for a person to look at their aging parents and say, “sorry, I could care for you in your old age but, golly gee willikers, I gave it all to God! Sorry!” To the Pharisees, there were theologically defensible reasons to refuse justice, to withhold mercy, to misguide faithfulness.

For the Pharisees, the elite, those who had the means to do the things which were truly important, their theology got in the way.

Our Epistle reading this morning pits the writer of the Book of James against a group of elite Christians on the other end of the spectrum. For them, religion was a personal thing, an internal spiritual exercise. What you did didn't matter as long as you had faith, as long as you believed. In theory, this should have meant that all people were equal, but in practice church service became little more than an opportunity to show their status in the community by where they sat and what they wore. The rich were doted upon for what they could provide, and the needy were ignored.

They heard the clear message of Scripture, they knew, as the Pharisees had, about the command to, as Micah put it, act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. Yet because they were convinced that faith required no action, this knowledge, this hearing, was not acted upon. It was, in their view, unnecessary. It was enough to look upon someone who was hungry and homeless and wish them God's blessing.

Their theology had defiled their religion, turned their church into a social club, and had put their faith on life support. James' prescription was simple: Don't just listen, do.

One of the interesting things about the Pharisees that Jesus confronted and the Christians that James wrote to is that, in both cases, their belief system caused them no real discomfort but harmed others. You can imagine them standing on either side of The Chasm, with the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the theologically imperfect, and the enslaved below. The people on both sides know the people are there, but they also know that the people in The Chasm don't matter. They are either repugnant or irrelevant.

The message of the Gospel and Epistle readings falls, then, to us. Those of us who are neither Fundamentalist Evangelicals or Liberals. Those of us who would be viewed, by one side or the other, as theologically impure.

Unlike the Pharisees, the Fundamentalists of Jesus' time, we understand that what James terms keeping ourselves “unstained by the world” does not mean adhering to a strict set of rules for behavior. Rather, we bracket our day in prayer and Scripture reading, and we make rational choices about what we watch or listen to or participate in. We trust the Holy Spirit as our guide and teacher, and do not ignore our common sense.

Unlike the Christians who James wrote to, we know that while we have been released from the Law and its requirements, the Greatest Commandment, to love God and love our neighbor is a non-negotiable standard. We know that widows and orphans of the first-century Roman Empire translate in our time to all those who are poor, all those who are needy, all those who are marginalized.

And though we do so in our imperfect, human, Chasm-dwelling way, we strive to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk on our spiritual journey both humbly, and ever closer, with our God.

1 comment:

  1. John, you hit on the core of what I believe orthodoxy should look like. I know the proper term is orthopraxy, but really, how can we claim to have right doctrine if we totally ignore right practice? There shouldn't be the schism between the two, and anyone who does is just looking to excuse themselves from the responsibilities of grace. Grace is free, but its implications are staggering. Putting it into more guttural terms, "Faith without works is BS".