Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sermon, Proper 21B, James


Our last reading from James in this lectionary cycle revolves around the idea of faith. This might come as a surprise to some of you since everything we've heard up to now from his letter has to do with actions. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, and be doers of the word. Do not show favoritism and partiality because of social status, but love your neighbor as yourself, doing the good work of providing bodily needs to the less fortunate. Take care to mind your speech so as to not curse your fellow sisters and brothers who were also made in the likeness of God. Avoid envy and selfish ambition, partiality and hypocrisy in an effort to pursue the heavenly wisdom of peace, gentleness and mercy. James, it would seem, values works over faith.

But that might be too simplistic a view. It should be argued that James doesn't value works over faith, but that our works are informed by our faith. This is shown in how James bookends his letter of works with the anchor of faith. In the opening of his letter, he says that the testing of our faith builds endurance, and to ask for wisdom in faith. And in his closing paragraph he writes of praying through suffering, and for those who are sick and as an act of the righteous. All of these things are grounded in faith.

What, exactly, is faith? You may remember this from a previous sermon, but it bears repeating. There are two aspects of faith in our Christian context. The first is the objective faith of the Church. This faith, or doctrine, is found in the Creeds, certain Councils (such as those held in Jerusalem, Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon), various teachings by the doctors and saints of the Church, and the revelation of God as found in the Bible.

Following the faith of the Church is the subjective faith of her members, otherwise known as our personal faith. It is the first of what are called St. Paul's theological virtues -- faith, hope and love. It is our response to the Divine truth. But it isn't our response based on intellectual assent, it is our response based in nothing more than love. It is the response a parent has to a newborn child, or the response of a young child to a caring adult.

We can certainly have faith in things through a reasoned assent to a proposition. We have faith that gravity works. We have faith that the laws of physical motion will keep the earth in orbit for the time being. We have faith that an electrical starter will trigger an ignition, creating an internal combustion that ultimately lets us get to where we want to go. But as one theologian said, that is an unformed faith.

At some point we need to make the leap from an unformed faith of propositional assents to that of a faith formed by love. It's one thing to have faith that your parents will be there when you get home from school; it's quite another to have faith that they are actually happy to see you. It is that faith informed by love for which we should be striving to both incorporate and emulate in our lives.

How can we incorporate it? By following the advice James gives us in his letter. Faith informed by love allows us to establish a healthy and active prayer life. Faith informed by love allows us to incorporate the actions of caring for the less fortunate, the outsiders and the alien, not because it is the morally right thing to do, but because we see them as children of God, equal to ourselves in every way. Faith informed by love requires us to pay attention to our words, because what we say has a direct impact on how we live.

How can we emulate this faith informed by love? We emulate it by loving our neighbor as ourselves. We emulate it by allowing mercy to triumph over judgment. We emulate it by offering blessings instead of curses. We emulate it by being gentle and striving for peace. And we emulate it by confessing our sins and praying for each other.

If all we have is the unformed faith of propositional assent, then we are no better than the demons who also acknowledge God, or that of the Kiwanis Club who do good works because it is a nice thing to do. That faith, while unformed however, is nonetheless a necessary first step. We begin there by acknowledging God and by assenting to the doctrine of the Church. But we move beyond that simple assent and into a relationship with Christ. When we begin to view the gift of life that Christ gave us not as something finite to be hoarded, but as something infinite to be shared, then we begin our faith transformation from assent to love.

And as we move from assent to love, we begin to change our evangelism tactics. We don't evangelize in order to fill our pews and pad our bank account, but we evangelize out of concern for another person's spiritual well-being. Evangelism becomes not a club to threaten people with eternal damnation, but a nurturing aspect of helping a person grow.

St. Chrysostom said that evangelism is like the seeds of the farmers. The seeds are sown, but are then lovingly nurtured, cared for and protected by the farmer, who comes back again and again to ensure a goodly harvest. This is the act of a faith formed in love. These are the acts of constant prayer. These are the acts of submitting to wisdom from above.

The thrust of James' letter isn't simply a book of social ethics, although that is certainly a part of it. Neither is it a dissertation on how doing good works punches our ticket to heaven. The thrust of James is this: a faith that is informed by love where mercy abounds; the faith community that is built up, not torn down; that people are respected for being children of God; and that we bring in outsiders because we have a gift to share.

All these things James advocates. May we have the courage to follow his example.



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