22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lying is a sin. It’s kind-of referred to in the Ten Commandments (bearing false witness). You are not supposed to lie. Having said that: if someone you care about asks you, “Do I look pretty,” feel free to come find me after and I will grant you absolution.
A friend asked me earlier this week, “Is it okay not to be completely honest with people?”
I said, “‘Okay’? In most relationships it’s important not to be completely honest with people.” Of course, it’s also important to know the difference between what needs to be said and what probably shouldn’t be said. Some questions are just too important not to be answered directly and honestly. Like, for example, “As a church, do we look like Jesus?” This Table reminds us that we are called to be the Body of Christ; do we look like him? In many ways, I think we do; but if we’re being honest with each other, we would have to admit that we could do better. It is important, in the ways we live our lives, that we look as much like Jesus as we possibly can; the world needs us to show him in our lives; our Savior calls us and by the Spirit guides us to be the face of Jesus; so we strive to be that face more and more.
We may not like hearing that we’re not as “pretty” as we could be, but if we want to be more like him, sometimes it takes a good hard look in the mirror.
As you may know by now, through at least most of September, we’ll be looking at the Book of James. For reasons I’ll talk about in a minute, I like coming back to the Book of James from time to time; I think it’s important; but I should also point out that James has not always been well-reviewed, so to speak. The most famous example comes from the great church reformer, Martin Luther. Luther called James a “gospel of straw” and questioned why it had been included in the Bible in the first place. He was not a fan.
I think the problem, when people bristle against the Book of James, is that it is placed right there alongside of the books of Paul. Paul’s writings, as I’ve mentioned before, have two distinct parts: there’s the first part, where Paul lays out the Truth of Jesus Christ; and then there’s the second part, where Paul lays out what he thinks we should do with that Truth. Then we come to James and expect it to be the same kind of book, but it’s not.
Some have looked at James as if it’s like the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament; books like Ecclesiastes or the Book of Proverbs. I think that’s helpful, but I think there’s more to it than that. Whereas Paul starts with Truth as the foundation for how you live out that Truth, James just assumes you already know it. James skips past what you already know and jumps to what you should do with it. In short, Paul centers on faith, but James centers on religion. And as a church, we need to think about our religion.
A couple of weeks ago, as you know, I spent a few days with my brothers; a thing we haven’t done in decades. We talked about everything. Many of those things, I should not and will not ever talk to you about. But one of the things I should not but will talk to you about anyway is my younger brother’s hair. My younger brother has always been the pretty one. I was talking to him about his hair, which is short on the sides and in the back, but he grows it out long in the middle and on top. Turns out, it’s to cover up a bald spot; a comb-over! You have no idea how happy that made me.
That is, perhaps, a perfect metaphor of what most people think about religion: I may not be perfect, but at least I’m better than somebody else; and if I can’t be better than someone else, at least I can notice their flaws and feel better about mine.
It’s no wonder religion has a bad reputation. Through the years, we’ve certainly done plenty to earn that reputation. From abuse to the covering up of abuse, to greedy televangelists, to holy wars and colonialism, the reputation the Christian religion has is the reputation the Christian religion has earned. All of those things are probably why, when you ask most Americans if they are “spiritual” or “religious,” they are almost always just “spiritual.” I admit, I am much the same way: I was at a party last night, when someone asked me what I do for a living. It made me cringe. I mean, you’re religious, but I’m religious professionally. And it’s always been that way: we read the Gospels and see how, in Jesus’ day, it was the religious people who usually missed the point the most. I would much rather not be a Pharisee, but here we are, participating in a religion.
Now of course, I’m not saying we shouldn’t. We also know that there are reasons why we’re here that are completely separate from everything I just mentioned. With all its flaws and abuses, I do a disservice to you, the church, when I constantly apologize for our religion. Yes, we are religious people. Proudly, we are trying to do it right. We are people of faith, gathered together to try to live out that faith in ways that glorify God. We are religious people trying to live out what the Book of James describes.
Today we hear those famous words of James: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” Now in a way, it sounds like he’s discounting the hearing, right? “Merely hearers?” But just a verse before, James says that this word that we have heard has the power to “save your souls.” All he’s saying is, it’s meant for more than that: we are meant to do something with what we’ve heard.
There once was a man who decided to take over an old, run-down piece of land. It was a mess: the fields were overgrown with weeds, the shed was falling down, and the greenhouse was just a frame and broken glass.
As he started the work, his pastor stopped by. As they talked, the pastor volunteer to pray a blessing over the work: "May you and God,” he prayed, “work together to make this the allotment of your dreams!"
A few months went by and the pastor stopped by again. Lo and behold, the place was completely transformed: the shed was expertly rebuilt; vegetables were growing in neat and tidy rows; and the greenhouse was repaired and growing beautiful tomatoes.
“Why this is amazing!” exclaimed the pastor. “Look what you and God have accomplished together!"
The man agreed, but added, “Do you remember what a mess this place was back when God was trying to do it on His own?”
Of course, God can do whatever God wants to do, but God prefers to do it through us. That’s all that James is saying: religion, true religion, is when we do what faith inspires us to do; and that we do it together.
I love the mirror metaphor James uses, mostly because it’s hilarious. The absurdity of it is just wonderful: you look in the mirror, check your hair, make sure your fly is up; and then you walk away to another mirror and say, “(gasp!) Who is that?!” We receive the life-giving Truth of our salvation—we know who we now are in Christ—and then we walk away, forgetting what that looks like. We walk away forgetting to be careful about the things we say. We walk away forgetting to care for those that Jesus cares about like widows and orphans. We walk away and forget to keep ourselves unstained by the world. The imagery James uses is absurd to the point of being comical, but the true absurdity is that we do it all the time. Which is why we’re studying James. We study James to remember that our religion ought to lead to something more.
Here, we practice religion, but my hope is that we do it the right way: that we might be mirrors for each other. I hope that we can see in one another, what we ought to look like in Christ: that I see in you a person that is quick to listen and slow to speak; that you see in me someone who has gotten rid of “sordidness and rank growth” (what a great way to put it). My hope is that we see in one another, the very Body of Christ that we proclaim here at this Table. But my hope, most of all, is that the world around us also sees our Risen Savior reflected in our lives as well.