Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sermon, Proper 17B, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

If any think they are religious but do not bridle their tongues . . . their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure is to care for orphans and widows in distress.

It is from within that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, wickedness, envy, slander, etc.

How do we put this thing called Christianity into practice? How do we live and act in this world while holding to the tenets of Christianity? Because, as some of you have pointed out, being a Christian is hard work.

One of the reasons it is hard work is because Christianity is based in love. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Welcome outsiders. Care for those less fortunate. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. And the list goes on.

I am often saddened when I read or hear of stories about Christians whose sole purpose in life seems to be determining who is good enough and pure enough to participate in church. And sometimes it's not only determining who can participate in church, but it extends to playing the part of God -- otherwise known as determining who gets into heaven and who is damned to hell. The whole basis of their faith and their religion seems to be predicated on who they dislike, who they hate and who they can happily declare as heretics.

For some, it was the BCP revision of 1979 that started the slide towards heresy. For others, that slide started when we created a prayer book other than that of 1662. Others claim the church started its descent into apostasy when we began ordaining women to the priesthood. And there are those today who claim that for the church to treat lgbt people as . . . well . . . as people, is contrary to scripture and proof positive that the church has lost all moral foundations.

In more recent news, there are some people trying to derail the conversation on national healthcare by spreading lies, arguing against a socialized system of healthcare, and claiming they shouldn't be forced to help others. In the first instance, I don't care if you are for or against national healthcare -- well, I do care -- but my point is this: do your research before going off the deep end and making outrageous claims, such as government sponsored death panels and comparing Obama to Hitler. In the second instance, if people want to argue against government sponsored healthcare, or socialized healthcare, maybe they should first be pushing for the elimination of Medicare. And in the third . . .

Care for orphans and widows, and avoid evil intentions that include greed, murder, slander, etc. Being a Christian is hard work because we are asked to base our relationships, our actions and our lives on the principal of love. For Christians, that is not a request, it's a mandate.

And this brings me back to the readings for today.

In Mark, we hear Jesus tell us to avoid a whole list of evil intentions that come from within us: theft, murder, adultery, greed, deceit, slander, etc. On the surface we might think that we have a handle on those. But how many times have we intentionally, or unintentionally, spread rumors about someone? How many times have we rationalized our greed by saying that we aren't as bad as "Those" people; or that we deserve something that ultimately deprives another person? Or how many times have we refused to refute lies, and thereby become complicit in the lie ourselves?

This list of Jesus isn't just about the obvious sins that come to mind, i.e. David and Bathsheba, but they are those actions which we gloss over or that have lasting negative effects. We know what we should be doing, but sometimes we forget how to do it.

And this is where James comes in. Martin Luther didn't much care for James; he termed it an epistle of straw. But Luther's opinion isn't everybody's opinion. One commentator says that James is the How To book of Christianity. We'll spend the next few weeks in James and the first thing we hear is how to put our religion into practice by caring for widows and orphans.

Care for the widows and orphans. In other words, care for those in society who are most at risk. In the richest country in the world, why is it that almost 47 million of our citizens lack healthcare? In the most technologically advanced country, why is it that an estimated 22 thousand people die each year from a lack of health coverage? Why do most insurance companies refuse to cover preventative care, or base their coverage on group statistics and not individual need? How is refusing healthcare to fellow citizens and those in society most at risk a goal of some of our fellow Christians?

Now, whether or not this plan is the right one I don't absolutely know for sure. But what I do know, and what we get from James, is that we should be working towards the gospel imperative of caring for and loving all of God's children.

This is why Christianity is hard work. Because there are people we don't like. There are people we think are undeserving. There are people we classify as outsiders and Others and less than. But they are also God's children, created in his image and invited to the banquet.

Jesus calls us to pay attention to our behavior. James gives us the operating manual. By paying attention to both, maybe we can come to see others not as a threat or as evil or as debased or as slackers or as unworthy, but maybe we can come to see them as God sees them -- as beloved.

Regardless of how right you think you are about homosexuality or immigration or healthcare (to name a few hot button issues) -- regardless of how right you think you are, be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. And remember to base everything in love. For this is the goal of the gospel.


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