Audio of this sermon will be available on the Christ Church website.
One of the things that drew my family to Bowling Green was the romantic ideal of four honest-to-goodness seasons, with real springs, falls, and winters. In lower Alabama, it was said that there were really six seasons, each lasting two months. Three of them were summer. Currently, they are suffering through “Hurricane Summer,” which I remember as the season in which you began to forget what outside looks like as you move from building to car and back again as quickly as possible. In Bowling Green, the summer of 2018 has felt a bit like a lower Alabama summer, but even if it is raining, today shows us the promise of more fall-like temperatures on the horizon.
The church has its own equivalent of a six-month Gulf Coast Summer, which is commonly called Ordinary Time. The Season after Pentecost usually runs from May or June all the way to December, and can feel like an interminable stretch of green.
During the dog days of Ordinary Time, the Lectionary does us a favor by occasionally taking long walks in a particular portion of the Scriptures. You might remember our five-week visit in the Bread of Life Discourse last month. For the month of September, we’ll spend five weeks bouncing around the Letter of James, which holds a special place in my heart. James is an often-misunderstood letter, that has become the scorn of Protestants ever since Martin Luther called it an epistle of straw. Luther’s main objection was with the final three verses of today’s passage, which seem to undermine the Protestant overemphasis on St. Paul’s thesis of justification by grace through faith by suggesting that works are required to get into heaven. I don’t think that’s a fair reading of James, but we’ll have to come back to that in a minute.
What I so appreciate about James is how straight-forward it is. Unlike Paul’s sometimes serpentine-like run-on sentences about lofty ethics and big theological constructs, James was written, as Mother Becca told us last week, to be a letter of universal appeal. James wrote about real things that congregations were struggling with in the first century. These same things happen to be real things that congregations are still struggling with in the twenty-first century. The not-really-hypothetical example that opens our text this morning shows that not much has really changed in the church in the last two-thousand years. Human beings are still human beings, whether they have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, or not. We are pre-disposed to play favorites, to defer to the rich and the powerful, and to look down on those who are living on the margins.
It is in this not-really-hypothetical example, that I think we really come to understand why James makes so many people uncomfortable. He isn’t afraid to go from preaching to meddling – naming the evil he sees in the church, namely the rich getting preferential treatment over the poor – as sinful. Here, James is in total agreement with Saint Paul in suggesting that the chief sin of most Christians is idolatry. By judging our neighbors, we put ourselves in the place of God, and directly violate both the first and second Commandments. “So, you didn’t murder anyone or commit adultery this week,” James says somewhat sarcastically in my imagination, “Congratulations! But. If you judged your neighbor because of his disheveled appearance, you have still fallen short of the glory of God.”
“So, what are we to do then?” we might rightfully ask. Christianity according to James is downright difficult. If the standard for faithfulness to the Gospel is not killing anyone, we are all in pretty good shape, but when the bar gets raised up to “don’t make distinctions among yourselves,” we are all in a heap to trouble. Here’s where we circle back around to that stuff that made Martin Luther so uncomfortable. What if, when James writes that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” he is not being prescriptive, but descriptive. Instead of reading James 2:17 as saying, “if you don’t do good works, God isn’t going to give you entrance into heaven when you die,” perhaps we should read this as saying that the only way we know that God is at work in our lives is through our good deeds. This isn’t James undercutting salvation by grace through faith, but rather James’ honest assessment, based on his experience in the church that only when it walks like a Christian, talks like a Christian, and acts like a Christian, is it really a follower of Jesus Christ. Or, as Saint Paul might have described it, if you can see the fruit of the Spirit at work in someone’s life, even when they occasionally fall short, you can be sure that God is there.
Over the last month, Christ Church has received an additional gift in the midst of the dog days of Ordinary time thanks to three baptism Sundays in four weeks. Today, [at 10 o’clock] we welcome into the Household of God two people who are, in many ways, strangers to most of us. Lindsay and Evelyn are here from Central America, where Lindsay’s husband, Ryan, serves in the Marine Corps. Lindsay is a life-long friend of the Mitchell family, and so, we join with them in celebrating this momentous event for the Swoboda family. Even more, our Prayer Book teaches that Holy Baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church,” which means that today we act on behalf of the Church Universal to welcome Lindsay and Evelyn into the community of those who are on a daily basis striving to follow Jesus. As we do at every baptismal service, [at 10 o’clock] we will reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant, a series of eight questions that summarize for us what it means to be a Christian.
Like it was for James, for the authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, it was important that the life of a Christian be summarized not just in a series of theological concepts which must be believed in order to be saved, but that being a disciple of Jesus requires us to act as well. We will affirm our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the words of our most ancient statement of faith, the Apostle’s Creed, but if we stop there, James would warn us, then our faith, by itself, is dead. We must go on to seek God’s help in living that faith daily by way of engaging in the Apostle’s teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers, by working hard to resist the temptation to judge our neighbors, among other things, and when we fall short, returning to God’s grace, by proclaiming the Good News in word and deed, by loving our neighbor, and by respecting the dignity of every human being.
Being a Christian is hard. If it were just an exercise of the mind, merely a system of belief that required no action on our part, it would be so easy, but the rubber meets the road, as we learn from James and from our Baptismal Covenant, when our faith comes alive and we put our belief in God to work. As the dog days of Ordinary Time roll on, may the Lord who has given Lindsay, Evelyn, and all of us the will to do the good, hard work of Kingdom living, continually give us the grace and power to perform them. Amen.