Wealth | Proper 23

Mark 10:17-31

17 As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”

18 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 19 You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”

20 “Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 22 But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

23 Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” 24 His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! 25 It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

26 They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”

28 Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”

29 Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news 30 will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.”

Wealth

Believe it or not, I pick the Scripture texts from which I’ll preach several months in advance. In fact, I chose to preach on this text back on June 1st. So, I didn’t plan for this to be the consecration Sunday reading, but I guess it works. After all, Consecration Sunday is when we present our giving pledges for the coming year, and in this text, Jesus addresses something about faith and wealth and the values of God’s kingdom. But this isn’t an easy text to hear or to understand. So, let’s walk through it together.

When this exchange with the man takes place, Jesus had just blessed the children after scolding the disciples to let the little children come to him and explaining that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a little child will never enter it (c.f. Mark 10:15).

In Matthew’s version of this encounter, the man is described as “young” (19:22); in Luke’s Gospel he’s described as a “ruler” (18:18). So, in Christian tradition, this man is often called the rich young ruler. But, in Mark’s Gospel, he’s simply identified as a man with no other adjectives.

There’s no reason to doubt the man’s sincerity, as we often do when reading this story. When he approaches Jesus, he kneels. When he addresses Jesus, it’s with great respect. And when he questions Jesus, it seems—at least to me—that he genuinely wants to know the answer to a very serious concern.

But, as I said a moment ago, Jesus had just taught that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom—a better rendering of the Greek word is receive—whoever doesn’t receive God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it. It’s a lesson this man obviously didn’t hear because the man asks Jesus “What must I do to obtain eternal life” (Mark 10:17 CEB). Instead of receiving the kingdom in complete dependence, like a child, the man wanted to know what he could do.

It’s a mindset that’s typical of the privileged, in whatever capacity that we’re privileged. I think it’s important that we recognize our privilege over others: I’m white, I’m male, I’m ordained clergy, and there are certain amounts of privilege over others that go with each of those. Early in my marriage, when Joy would tell me about an issue she was having, I would try to solve it for her. Like an idiot, I would try to figure out what to do to fix her problem when all my wife wanted was for me to listen to her. Privileged people can have a mindset that we can do our way out of any problem. If the problem is obtaining eternal life, tell me what to do. I’ll put that on my list and check it off once it’s done.

Eternal life obtained. Check!

What’s more, the man wanted to know what he could do to inherit eternal life. While I like the Common English Bible, obtain probably isn’t the best translation here. The man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. My grandmother had her twelve grandchildren in her will, so I received a small inheritance. I didn’t do anything to inherit it. It’s what Grandma wanted to give. An inheritance is usually something a person can only be given. There’s not much anyone can do to inherit something. Inheritances are received. So, the man’s question is a little odd even if it is sincere.

Jesus responded to the man’s question by referring to several of the Commandments: specifically, the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth commandments (c.f. Exodus 20:12-16; Deuteronomy 5:16-20) along with a comment against fraud (c.f. Deuteronomy 24:14; Amos 8:5). These commandments remind us of the requirements of authentic and vibrant community life, and justice within our community. For authentic community to exist, we can’t kill each other, we can’t commit adultery with another person’s spouse, we can’t give false testimony to wrongfully convict our neighbors, we can’t defraud each other (the command against fraud in Deuteronomy 24 includes Israelites and immigrants), and we show honor to our parents by caring for them in their old age.

When the man responded that he had kept these things since he was a boy, Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. While we expect Jesus to love everyone, the statement by Mark suggests that Jesus honored the question and the questioner. This was a man who was trying to be faithful, who wanted to do what was right, and it seemed that Jesus saw that in him. But the requirements of discipleship can move us beyond the law. Jesus noted the one thing the man lacked, which was the utter trust in God he described earlier when teaching about how we must receive the kingdom of God like a child. It was this lack of trust that Jesus sought to bring to completion in the man’s faith.

Jesus said, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me” (Mark 10:21b CEB). Out of his love for this man, Jesus gave him something to do. And we’re told that the man was dismayed at Jesus’ words, and he went away sorrowful because he had many possessions.

Only now in the story do we find out that this man was wealthy. Like the majority of interpretations throughout Christian history, our interpretation of this man’s sorrow and dismay stems from an assumption that he went away in sorrow because he was unwilling do what Jesus told him to do. That’s how we often interpret these lessons.

I’d suggest that one judgment against us might be that we hear these lessons, we think: Well, that person should have done better, they should have obeyed Jesus. Then, we walk away without even attempting to obey the same command. I wonder if our assumptions about other people in these Biblical accounts is our unconscious attempt to comfort ourselves for failing—actually, for not even trying—to be faithful in the same ways as those we’re judging in the text.

The truth is that we don’t know if the man walked away sorrowful because he wouldn’t sell off his possessions and give the money to the poor. It’s entirely possible that the man walked away sorrowful because he intended to do exactly what Jesus told him to do: to sell his many possessions, to give to the poor, and to come back and follow Jesus. That kind of bold decision, that kind of radical action, that kind of leaping out into the deepest waters of faith would not be emotionless, would it? It’s difficult enough for many of us to throw away our junk, which is why we have mini-storage units all over the place. To sell our possessions would be a monumental relinquishment. It could be incredibly painful.

Jesus’ words and invitation to this man begs questions. What is the relationship between faith and possessions? Why would this man need to sell his possessions in order to follow Jesus?

I have heard Christian people say that they don’t think pastors should talk about money from the pulpit. I’ve heard that sentiment about political policy, too. Yet, the fact is that Jesus spoke about money and possessions more than any other topic except for the Kingdom of God. (In fact, many of his teachings about the Kingdom of God have to do with money and possessions). And, Jesus promised the disciples that they would stand before the political leaders of the world, (c.f. Matthew 10:18-28; Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12-19), just as the prophets stood before—and often against—the politicians of their day (c.f. 2 Samuel 12:1-12; 1 Kings 18).

If Jesus taught so much about money and possessions, we can be sure that our relationship with wealth is a deeply spiritual concern. In fact, it seems to be such a serious concern that nothing less than our salvation is at stake. Why was this man told to sell his possessions and give to the poor? My guess is that his many possessions were what kept him from relying on God and receiving the kingdom like a child. Remember, the man wanted to know what he could do to receive eternal life. Jesus told him that he needed to let go of the things that held his heart captive. Jesus told us in another place, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21 CEB).

Where is our treasure? What do we value most? If we value God’s kingdom, eternal life, salvation—those words seem to be used interchangeably in Mark—then we’ll be able to let go of the things that can be a stumbling block to receiving it. Jesus told the rich man that, if he sold his possessions and gave the money to the poor, then he would have treasure in heaven because that’s where the man’s heart would be after such a bold act of faith. After that, the man was invited to become a disciple of Jesus: to follow him.

Even the disciples were startled and shocked when Jesus told them three times that it’s difficult for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom. In their world, the prevailing theology of the day said that the wealthy were wealthy because they were good people and God was blessing them. Their wealth was a spiritual blessing and proof that they were faithful. Or course, they knew of exceptions just as we do. The book of Job is, seemingly, one big exception. But, for Job, it all worked out in the end, so it’s really not much of an exception.

In many ways, the teachings of Jesus take the theological assumption that good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, the good are rewarded with wealth and health, and the bad are punished with poverty and disease, and he turned it up-side-down. When everyone thought the wealthy were blessed, Jesus said, “Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours” (Luke 6:20b CEB). Jesus preached a radical divine reversal of our human assumptions about who and what is valuable and important. Jesus said, “many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first” (Mark 10:31 CEB). And the stark-yet-exaggerated language Jesus uses ought to tell us that Jesus is serious about this stuff.

At the same time, Jesus reminds us that salvation isn’t ours to earn. There’s nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. The kingdom of God is a gift, and we must receive it like a child would receive a gift. Salvation is impossible for human beings, but all things are possible with God. Now, that does not mean that we get to ignore the demands of faithful discipleship because we can’t earn the kingdom no matter what we do. That’s like Paul arguing against the idea that, because grace is more powerful than sin, we should sin more so that we can get more grace (c.f. Romans 6:1). On the contrary, we are called to repent, to change our hearts and minds, to walk in newness of life, among other things.

The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to get rid of the things that hinder our full trust in God. For those of material means, wealth and possessions is almost always a hindrance. Does that mean we should sell everything we own and make ourselves poor? No. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. The disciples were fishermen, and they still fished throughout the Gospel stories so they obviously didn’t sell their boats. Peter had a house, and his mother-in-law lived there (c.f. Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:30-31; Luke 4:38). The disciples didn’t impoverish themselves and their families. But they did give up what they needed to give up so they could be about the work of Jesus Christ and follow God’s teachings.

In a way, we can turn our stumbling blocks into blessings. At times, we all worry about money, and we usually take pride in our possessions. How easy is it for us to give our wealth away, and do we give as God requires of us? Ten percent is a lot. I know because my wife and I give 10.7% of my income to church, and we give more to support other ministries that we think are important. (I don’t say that to boast. I say that so that you know that your pastor practices what he preaches). I learned a long time ago that, if you can give wealth away, if you can give generously, then your treasure won’t be in your money and possessions. Your treasure will be in heaven.

It’s important that we consider where our treasure is. May God give us the grace we need to value most what is truly valuable.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

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Let Them Come | Proper 22

Mark 10:13-16

13 People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. 15 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” 16 Then he hugged the children and blessed them. (CEB)

Let Them Come

As a parent, I wonder what the Disciples’s problem was.

Did they not have children of their own, so they didn’t see the importance of allowing children to be blessed?

Did they think Jesus was too busy to be bothered with children, who, in the Disciples’ patriarchal society, were some of the least valued and most vulnerable?

Were the children making a scene, as children are often capable of doing, and the Disciples wanted to clear them out for the sake of some peace and quiet?

We don’t really know for certain, but in the greater scheme of Mark’s narrative this is one more example of how the Disciples just didn’t get this Kingdom of God thing that Jesus was preaching. It’s the continuation of a negative portrayal of the Disciples in this section of Mark’s Gospel, beginning in the middle of chapter 8 and continuing through the end of chapter 10 (8:22-10:52). This negative portrayal shows us that the Disciples were constantly concerned with positions of power and influence, and they were constantly getting it wrong.

So, perhaps what the Disciples were really concerned about here was that, if these parents were bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing, children who have no status in their society, then they were essentially taking up the Disciples’s precious time with Jesus. Maybe they thought these children didn’t have a claim on Jesus, they didn’t have a right to be there. Children certainly weren’t more important than them. Likely, in their humble opinions, the Disciples were the important ones. They were the chosen followers of Jesus. They were hand-picked by Jesus, himself. They should get the majority of Jesus’ time and attention. They deserved the blessings. These parents, by bringing their silly children to Jesus for a blessing they probably didn’t deserve, were getting in the way.

It’s interesting that we aren’t told specifically who the Disciples were rebuking: were they rebuking the children, or the parents who were bringing them to Jesus for a blessing? One thing that is certain: we know toward whom Jesus directed his anger. We’re told that Jesus became angry at what he saw the Disciples doing in turning the children away.

Some translations render the Greek word here as indignant or angry. I kind of like the old King James rendering, which says Jesus was “much displeased” (KJV). The Disciples were trying to exclude those whom their society and culture deemed unworthy, while Jesus constantly had to remind the Disciples that his ministry is one of inclusion: even to children and the women who were most likely the ones bringing them forward to be blessed by this holy man. The Disciples were trying to enforce the social norms of the day, while Jesus was more or less smashing them to bits because the social norms of any human culture aren’t necessarily the norms of God’s Kingdom.

Today is World Communion Sunday. I have to admit that I’ve always thought of World Communion Sunday as a bit of a bad joke. After all, we’re United Methodists, we’re Wesleyans, and if we know anything about John Wesley’s theology or the practical divinity of Methodism, we know that every Sunday should be World Communion Sunday. Wesley insisted that his Methodists received the sacrament at least weekly because it’s the grand channel of God’s grace. Even more so than breakfast, it’s a meal that’s too important—too beneficial—to skip.

Nevertheless, the one thing that World Communion Sunday has going for it, in my mind, is that it does attempt to remind us of the universality of God’s grace, and that the Gospel, the Good News of God’s Kingdom, and the salvation offered to all in Jesus Christ, is world-wide. The Good News is open to all people of all cultures and all nations. No one is left outside the possibility of God’s redemptive grace, from those who are seemingly the most important people in the world to those who are wrongly thought of as the non-essentials of our various cultures. The Christian church is world-wide, and despite what our culture—or any other culture—thinks of the worthiness of certain people, all are invited by God to enter God’s Kingdom.

Still, the meaning of what Jesus is teaching the Disciples here can get away from us first-world, 21st century folk. When we hear Jesus talk about children like this, we tend to romanticize the whole thing. We tend to put children on a pedestal: thinking them to be unspoiled and innocent little creatures. My assumption is that most of the people who have this romanticized idea about children either never were parents, or they’ve suffered a brain injury of some sort that has completely wiped their memory of parenthood.

As a father of three, I have absolutely no idealistic notions of the innocence of children. I tend to agree with the person who suggested that children are the perfect theological cure for anyone who says they don’t believe in original sin. Innocence of children? My foot!

The Greco-Roman world didn’t have any of our modern romanticized ideas of the innocence of children either. Jesus didn’t say that we have to receive the Kingdom of God as a little child because children are innocent. None of us can do that because none of us are innocent. Jesus said we need to receive the Kingdom of God as a little child because, in that first century Greco-Roman, male-centered world, children were completely dependent upon their father for everything. Children belonged to their father and remained subject to his authority even as adults. Children were the non-persons in that world. They had nothing, and they couldn’t get anything unless someone gave it to them. They were dependent upon their father for their status, their inheritance, even for the means of life itself. Children received everything as a gift, and that kind of receiving is the only way we can enter the Kingdom of God.

No one enters the Kingdom of God because of their status or their influence, which is what the Disciples kept fighting about. No one enters because of who they are. We don’t get to check our accomplishments off a list and say, Look at what I’ve done, God, you know I deserve to make the cut. Mark emphasized that entrance into the Kingdom of God is wholly and completely dependent upon God’s grace. God has offered this gift to all people—Jesus died for all people—; we have only to receive it as a gift.

Sometimes we’re a lot like the Disciples. We have this seemingly natural urge to want to fence people out. We tend to want to exclude people who, in our judgment, are unworthy to receive the Kingdom of God. Sometimes we forget that God’s perspective is different from ours. Psalm 14 can help adjust our view by reminding us that, “The LORD looks down from heaven on humans to see if anyone is wise, to see if anyone seeks God, but all of them have turned bad. Everyone is corrupt. No one does good—not even one person!” (Psalm 14:2-3 CEB). And this same God who sees this in us as he looks upon us from the throne—for some unfathomable reason—chooses to cover us with grace each day, worked out a way to forgive us, recklessly desires to be reconciled to us, and unimaginably offers the Kingdom to us.

Of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t strive for perfection in holiness and love. In another place, Jesus tells us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NRSV). And Paul tells us, “I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone” (Titus 3:8 NRSV). Yet, even as we devote ourselves to holiness and good work, we must recognize that all is gift. All is grace. Outside of God’s grace we have nothing.

The reality of being a child of God is that it has nothing at all to do with one’s age. According to what Jesus is telling us in this text, the oldest person in this room had better be child-like in their receptiveness of the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom is a gift offered to us, and we must receive the gift with the understanding that we are completely dependent upon God for our salvation.

The invitation list to enter the Kingdom of God is longer than we can possibly imagine. How shall we respond when we see the least, the non-persons of our culture, coming forward to receive it? Do we act like the Disciples and attempt to fence them out and tell them they don’t belong here? Or do we welcome them with the radical hospitality of Jesus and embrace them with the loving recognition that the Kingdom of God belongs to them?

The reason Jesus got angry at his Disciples is because they thought it was their job to blacklist certain people from receiving God’s abundant blessings of grace: a grace that we are all radically dependent upon. None of us can set the conditions for entrance into God’s Kingdom. We must receive the Kingdom as a child, not because we’re innocent—clearly we’re not—but because, like children, we are utterly in need, wholly reliant, completely dependent upon the grace of God.

And if we’re eager to receive this gift, we should be eager to see that others receive it as well. The Good News of Jesus Christ is proclaimed for all to hear, and the Kingdom of God is open for anyone who would receive it. Thanks be to God that such grace extends even to us!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Tear It Out | Proper 21

Mark 9:38-50

38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

39 Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. 40 Whoever isn’t against us is for us. 41 I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.

42 “As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake. 43 If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands into the fire of hell, which can’t be put out. 44  45 If your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into hell with two feet. 46  47 If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with two. 48 That’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out. 49 Everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other.”

Tear It Out

This is my proof-text for those who claim they only interpret the Bible literally.

I want to say, Literally? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. (That’s my one The Princess Bride reference for this sermon).

For one thing, not every part of the Bible is meant to be interpreted literally. The Bible has many different genres of literature. Some of it is poetry, and any junior high school kid can tell you that you don’t interpret poetry literally.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was America’s darling poet during the early to mid 20th century. (No relation. She was a Millay from the branch that settled in Maine, whereas I’m a Millay from the branch that settled in Kentucky). One of her poems—it’s probably my favorite because I use it all the time—is First Fig, which says:

“My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

It gives a lovely light!”

Now, if I were to interpret this literally, I would imagine Edna St. Vincent Millay holding a candle with both ends lit, with wax dripping all over the place, and it won’t last the night because she was ridiculous enough to light both ends of the candle instead of putting it in a candle holder and only lighting the top like she was supposed to.

But, if I interpret her words poetically, as metaphor and symbolism, I might find that one possible interpretation is that she’s talking about her life and how she chose to live it: with such fire and intensity that she seems to burn twice as brightly as the rest of us. Foes and friends, alike, are invited to see. They can compare, criticize, or applaud, but none of that matters. Because it’s her life, and she’s going to confidently shine no matter the consequences. Like it or not: She. Will. Be. Seen. And. Known.

That’s poetry. And the way I just interpreted First Fig isn’t the only way to interpret it.

The majority of verses in this section of Mark are exaggerated language—called hyperbole—and symbolism. If we take the words of Jesus literally, here, then we need to start looking for millstones, plucking out our eyes, and chopping off various body parts because I can almost guarantee we aren’t all as innocent as our mostly-complete bodies look. I know I’m not.

But, what precipitated these words from Jesus? Even if it is hyperbole, the directives sound kind of harsh. At least, they sound harsh to me. Then again, maybe harsh words are what the disciples needed to hear after what they had done.

Let’s look at what happened earlier in the chapter. After Jesus was Transfigured on the mountain, they came across the other disciples who were in an argument with legal experts while surrounded by a crowd (c.f. Mark 9:14). When the crowd saw Jesus, they ran to him to tell him what the argument was about. A father brought his son because the boy was possessed by a spirit who made the kid foam at the mouth and do all kinds of crazy stuff. He wanted the disciples to cast the spirit out, but they couldn’t do it. So, after Jesus chastised them for their lack of faith, and the father begged Jesus to help his lack of faith, Jesus cast the spirit out. Then, the disciples asked why they hadn’t been able to do it, and Jesus told them it required prayer.

So, just prior to our text, the disciples had proved themselves to be incompetent. But that’s not all. After the incident of their failure, they started arguing about which one of them was the greatest. Can you imagine the kind of audacity it would take to argue about which of them was the greatest after failing so miserably? I suppose Peter, James, and John might have had a leg up on the others since they, at least, were allowed to go with Jesus and witness his Transfiguration. But, really, they were so dumbfounded by the event that the only thing they could brag about was that they saw Jesus light up like a dazzling Christmas display (except that they didn’t celebrate Christmas yet).

So, the disciples had proved themselves incompetent. They proved themselves ignorant when they didn’t understand why they couldn’t cast the spirit out of the boy. And now, they’re jealously guarding what little turf they have left to stand upon. John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us” (Mark 9:38 CEB). Did you hear what John said? The disciples saw someone—likely a new believer in Jesus since this is probably around the middle of Jesus’ ministry; they saw someone succeeding at the very thing they’d just failed to do, and they tried to stop him.

Can you imagine how that scene went down? This person was successfully throwing demons out of sick people in the name of Jesus, but the disciples didn’t like it because this whole Jesus thing was their thing. They owned it. They were the legitimate heirs of Jesus’ power and authority. They were the Twelve whom Jesus had chosen. They weren’t about to let some random Joe edge in on their territory. No way! If this dude wasn’t following them, if they weren’t officially credentialed, if they weren’t walking beside Jesus as part of the inner-circle, then the “real” disciples weren’t going to have it!

The reply Jesus gives speaks against the lust for power and control the disciples displayed by trying to stop this person from doing good work in Jesus’ name. Yet, Jesus’ words can confound us, a little, because they’re full of symbolism and exaggeration. “Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us. I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded” (Mk. 9:39-41 CEB).

The cup of water comment seems confusing, but I think Jesus was essentially saying that this person they tried to stop was throwing the disciples a bone. He was doing their work for them. He was doing what they couldn’t. It’s like this unknown person was giving the disciples a cup of water, a cup of refreshment, when they were too weary or weak in faith to help those who needed help.

Jesus continued by saying, “As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake” (Mark 9:42 CEB). Jesus scolded the disciples on behalf of the one who was casting out demons. Because the disciples acted out of jealousy, they might have done real damage to that person’s faith.

It’s a scenario that I sometimes see with children when one of them tries to exclude another child from their group or activity by claiming that they aren’t part of the in-crowd. But I’ve seen it with adults, too. I’ve even seen it with Christian adults. What if our actions ended up driving another person away from faith in Jesus? What if the person the disciples tried to stop threw up their hands and said, Well, if that’s how this Jesus thing is, you can forget it!

Followers of Jesus aren’t supposed to act that way. But sometimes we do. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that our jealous hearts can judge each other with a level of talent equal to the rest of the world. Instead of building up and adding to our community, our instinct can be, at times, to circle the wagons and keep others out. We’re just as good at protecting our turf as anyone else.

Maybe that’s why Jesus’ words about how it would be better for us to be tied to a stone and drowned than cause “these little ones” to trip and fall disturbs us. Maybe that’s why the strong imperatives about chopping off our hands and feet and tearing out our eyes bothers us so.

This is, I believe, a warning for disciples of Jesus to be careful. We have no claim on anything but the freely-given grace of God: grace that is offered to everyone. We don’t have a corner on the market of God’s acceptance. We aren’t any more welcome to God’s grace and love than anyone else.

The thing is, this whole Jesus thing—the Christian Faith, God’s redemption and offer of salvation—it’s never been about judgment. It’s never been about fencing others out. It’s never been about protecting our turf or guarding our comfort zones. It’s not even about comparing ourselves to what others are doing or measuring their successes and failings against our successes and failings. Aren’t we on the same team? Isn’t someone else’s success—even if it’s another congregation or organization; isn’t it a cup of water for us to drink?

Jesus warns that everyone will be salted with fire (c.f. Mark 9:49). Both salt and fire represent purification. Salt was to be given with the offerings made at the Tabernacle and Temple because salt purified the offering. But if salt loses its saltiness—if it loses its ability to make things pure—how will it become salty again and regain its purifying presence?

What I think Jesus is saying is our worth is going to be judged. In fact, our worth already has been judged. God found us worthy enough of God’s love to send Jesus Christ to redeem us from sin. But if we engage in petty jealousies and lay stumbling blocks in front of others, like the disciples were doing, then what good are we for the kingdom of God? When we do that, we’re like salt that loses its saltiness. God has judged us as worthy of love and grace, but what good are we for God’s kingdom if we throw away our God-given value?

Jesus tells us to have salt in ourselves, but how do we do that? I think the clue is in the final five words of verse 50 (it’s only three words in Greek): “keep peace with each other.” We have salt in ourselves when we don’t engage in the kind of jealousy the disciples engaged in by trying to prevent someone from working in the name of Jesus.

I think we show that we have salt in ourselves when we keep peace with each other, and when welcome others into our faith community. So, let us be salt. Let us be peacemakers. Let us love each other as Christ loves us. And let’s love those who may not follow us so fiercely that they can see God’s kingdom in us—that they want to walk with us—when we invite them in.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Capable | Proper 20

Proverbs 31:10-31

(א) 10 A competent wife, how does one find her? Her value is far above pearls.

(ב) 11 Her husband entrusts his heart to her, and with her he will have all he needs.

(ג) 12 She brings him good and not trouble all the days of her life.

(ד) 13 She seeks out wool and flax; she works joyfully with her hands.

(ה) 14 She is like a fleet of merchant ships, bringing food from a distance.

(ו) 15 She gets up while it is still night, providing food for her household, even some for her female servants.

(ז) 16 She surveys a field and acquires it; from her own resources, she plants a vineyard.

(ח) 17 She works energetically; her arms are powerful.

(ט) 18 She realizes that her trading is successful; she doesn’t put out her lamp at night.

(י) 19 She puts her hands to the spindle; her palms grasp the whorl.

(כ) 20 She reaches out to the needy; she stretches out her hands to the poor.

(ל) 21 She doesn’t fear for her household when it snows, because they are all dressed in warm clothes.

(מ) 22 She makes bedspreads for herself; fine linen and purple are her clothing.

(נ) 23 Her husband is known in the city gates when he sits with the elders of the land.

(ס) 24 She makes garments and sells them; she supplies sashes to traders.

(ע) 25 Strength and honor are her clothing; she is confident about the future.

(פ) 26 Her mouth is full of wisdom; kindly teaching is on her tongue.

(צ) 27 She is vigilant over the activities of her household; she doesn’t eat the food of laziness.

(ק) 28 Her children bless her; her husband praises her:

(ר) 29 “Many women act competently, but you surpass them all!”

(ש) 30 Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

(ת) 31 Let her share in the results of her work; let her deeds praise her in the city gates.

Capable

If we watch television at all, we’ve seen the commercials. A woman joyfully mops a track of muddy footprints from an otherwise immaculate floor in an otherwise immaculate kitchen. I’ve never seen that happen in real life. In real life, whoever’s mopping up a mess like those muddy footprints is usually grumbling or, at least, shaking their head in annoyance as they scrub the floor. But we know that. We know these commercials aren’t presenting reality. They’re trying to sell something. Reading this text makes me wonder what Proverbs is trying to sell. This sounds like the perfect woman. It sets a standard of achievement impossibly high, doesn’t it?

It’s true that one way of interpreting this text is to look at this competent and capable woman of Proverbs and say, this is what good women do. This unattainable, exhausting ideal is what all women should aim for in their lives. Women should be perennial overachievers, never resting, always striving, good at everything they touch. They should be industrious, wise, and respected household managers, mothers, supportive wives, accomplished artisans, successful businesspersons, wise teachers, prudent planners, and tireless workers.

They should make their own clothes, get up in the middle of the night to get everyone else going, take care of the family business, work into the night, and have something to give to those in need, always be strong and dignified, and have something witty or profound to say, but also laugh a little. Make sure you smile more. Don’t take yourself so seriously. And do all of this with reverent humility before God. Your children will be perfectly behaved and grow up to become responsible citizens. Your husband will appreciate you at all times, and your industry and ingenuity will be regaled in all places. In other words, women should bear all the mental load of family, household, business, and community life. I mean, why not add a few more things to every woman’s list of responsibilities?

That interpretation might make most women squirm. Heck, it makes me squirm because I can’t do all those things. What woman—or man for that matter—could? I would be exhausted. (Most mothers I know already are). If this poem in Proverbs is presenting reality, then it sounds like a list of impossible expectations and false promises. I bet most women in the congregation rolled their eyes and thought to themselves, That’s not me, when the Scripture was being read. I’m pretty sure I heard a few heavy sighs.

It’s a good thing that the Hebrew word translated as competent or capable can also mean army, because it would take an army to accomplish everything the Proverb is saying this warrior-woman accomplishes. I think my wife would happily clone herself just to get everything done that she feels she needs to get done, and her list probably isn’t as exhaustive—and exhausting—as the one in Proverbs. I wrote out a version of this with Joy in mind, inserting all the things she does, and I don’t know how she manages her days. I imagine it would take at least four Joys to get it all done. She lamented once that women are told they can have it all, but they aren’t told it’ll kill them (unless they have that army of clones, I suppose).

Some relieving news might be that those who would interpret this as realistic expectations for women probably have it wrong. The reason I say that is because this is poetry. Poetry isn’t always talking about the thing it seems to be talking about. Poetry needs to be interpreted poetically. And this is actually a very orderly kind of poetry called an acrostic. Do you remember the symbols before each verse of the Scripture text? Those were the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In an acrostic poem, each line of the poem begins with a different letter arranged in alphabetical order from A to Z, or (א) aleph to (ת) tav in this case.

The book of Proverbs was possibly written to instruct young men on wise living. In earlier parts of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman, and the book presents a choice between the highly desirable Lady Wisdom and undesirable Dame Folly. The poem is likely talking about seeking wisdom as a companion for life because wisdom will always prove beneficial, trustworthy, and good. Wisdom is the kind of life partner who works tirelessly. Describing wisdom as a spouse is meant to suggest it’s like someone who’s with you all the time, someone who works alongside you, walks alongside you, who takes care of you, who makes you a better person than you would be without them, whose mere presence makes you feel fulfilled. You can see why wisdom is presented as a spouse. It’s what my wife does for me. It’s what I hope I do for her as her equal partner. That’s what wisdom is: a faithful and tireless companion who walks with you all the days of your life.

While Proverbs obviously comes from a patriarchal culture, it isn’t focused on making comparisons of equality or inequality, which implies a kind of opposition. Instead, the thing that seems to characterize the marital relationship described here is mutual support. There’s a kind of generous empowering that flows from each spouse to the other and overflows into blessings on the family and the whole community.

The woman described in this poem rises early not because she’s subordinate to her husband, but because she’s determined. She helps her husband not because he holds power over her but because of her character, which proves her to be trustworthy and her work fruitful. Her business flourishes because of her initiative and creativity. Her generosity isn’t coerced, rather, it reflects her kind heart for strangers and her own children alike. She’s energetic and strong because of her self-discipline. She’s a true partner to her husband: a partner who undergirds her marriage with faithful and trustworthy companionship.

The fact that the poem begins with a question, “A competent wife, how does one find her?” suggests that wisdom is something each person must search for if they’re to find it. The thing is, few of us live up to this paragon-example of one who truly fears the Lord and has become wise. If you think about it, becoming wise, searching for wisdom, is a process. Righteous and faithful living requires practice and, sometimes, trial and error. Growth in the faith takes time and effort. That’s something Methodists understand. There is a method to our striving for holiness.

God didn’t choose Israel because they just happened to be wiser than other people, or more righteous than other people. Jesus didn’t die for us because we were righteous enough to make such a sacrifice worthwhile. Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do” (Matthew 9:12 CEB). Those who fear the Lord are made wise through their unyielding obedience to God. Those who fear the Lord mature in wisdom by living out the Lord’s precepts. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom in the Bible isn’t enlightenment. It isn’t what our culture thinks of as wisdom. Wisdom is a lifetime of obedience to God. Wisdom is discipline that is honed by the faithful decisions we make each day.

Neither is wisdom knowledge as we think of it. In our culture, knowledge is a commodity. It’s a possession that can be used for the benefit of those who have it, and those who have it are those who were privileged enough and wealthy enough to acquire it through formal education. Then, after we’ve acquired our knowledge through formal education, we maintain it through credentialing. I’m required to earn a certain number of continuing education units every year. When my wife worked as a Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, she had to earn a certain number of CEUs each year to maintain her CTRS certification and keep her credentials up to date. I’m not knocking formal education. I’m a product of it. But knowledge, in that sense, is not wisdom.

Rather, wisdom is a way of life. Wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Wisdom includes justice, righteousness, humility, compassion, generosity, fairness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Wisdom is available to everyone. It’s attainable by everyone. There’s no degree requirement and no professional credentialing because wisdom is about how we live.

I asked the question last week: how do we find wisdom? One way of answering that question is to look around us. Look at the other people seated in the pews of this sanctuary. Look at the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, fathers, grandfathers, and uncles of our families. Those who are wise can lead us to wisdom.

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he pointed to this. He wrote, “I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure this faith is also inside you” (2 Timothy 1:5 CEB). This implies that wisdom—defined as faithful living—is something that’s learned and passed down. When we see people living out the many fruits of the Spirit, and when we choose to emulate them, then we’re in the process of learning to be wise.

At the same time, our elders aren’t the only examples of wisdom and faithful living. I’ve heard and seen kids say and do incredibly faithful things that made me think, Huh. I should be like that.

While the poem moves between extoling the life of a wife and mother and the personification of wisdom’s virtues as described in chapters 10 through 30, it’s no surprise to me that the writer chose a woman as the embodiment of wisdom itself. So many women have exemplified faithful living and, through their examples, have shaped my faith and life. When we search for wisdom and find it, we’re invited to commit ourselves to her path, to live with wisdom in complete loyalty, as she walks beside us as a loyal and beloved partner. While the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, a lifetime of faithful living exemplifies wisdom and guides those who follow after us to become wise as well.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Simple Ones | Proper 19

Proverbs 1:20-33

20 Wisdom shouts in the street; in the public square she raises her voice. 21 Above the noisy crowd, she calls out. At the entrances of the city gates, she has her say: 22 “How long will you clueless people love your naïveté, mockers hold their mocking dear, and fools hate knowledge? 23 You should respond when I correct you. Look, I’ll pour out my spirit on you. I’ll reveal my words to you. 24 I invited you, but you rejected me; I stretched out my hand to you, but you paid no attention. 25 You ignored all my advice, and you didn’t want me to correct you. 26 So I’ll laugh at your disaster; I’ll make fun of you when dread comes over you, 27 when terror hits you like a hurricane, and your disaster comes in like a tornado, when distress and oppression overcome you. 28 Then they will call me, but I won’t answer; they will seek me, but won’t find me 29 because they hated knowledge and didn’t choose the fear of the LORD. 30 They didn’t want my advice; they rejected all my corrections. 31 They will eat from the fruit of their way, and they’ll be full of their own schemes. 32 The immature will die because they turn away; smugness will destroy fools. 33 Those who obey me will dwell securely, untroubled by the dread of harm.” (CEB)

Simple Ones

After reading this passage from Proverbs at Bible study on Tuesday, the comment was made that I was going to get myself into trouble with this text. That might be true. Especially because, in places, the tone of the text, itself, is a little troubling. It almost comes across as arrogant and vindictive. But I think that’s how I usually hear those who are trying to correct me or get me to see something straight. My own arrogance and pride can cause me to hear such correction as arrogance on the part of the corrector, even when they’re meaning it lovingly. It’s too easy for me to think, who are you to tell me anything? Then again, there are those whose wise counsel I have sought, and those who have given it without my solicitation. Trust, in such moments, matters a great deal.

Sometimes I wonder where wisdom has gone. It seems that, within our culture, wisdom is sidelined in favor of more lucrative things and personal gains. Wisdom is a topic that’s largely ignored in the church, too. The Revised Common Lectionary provides readings from Proverbs on only 5 Sundays of the three-year cycle. Our Protestant Bibles cut two works of Wisdom Literature from the canon of Scripture: The Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach, (though you can find them in the Apocrypha if your Bible includes it).

Many voices in our culture clamor for our attention. The voice of the church is merely one of many, and even the church’s voice is plural, not singular. How do the claims of God and the call of wisdom find a hearing when there are so many other voices out there, enticing us to seek the good life, to seek power, to seek notoriety, to seek wealth, and to chase the illusion of a life of ease? Where do we find wisdom amid the noise and attractions of culture?

Contrary to pop culture, wisdom is not found at the feet of a lonely male guru on top of a mountain. Instead, the writer of Proverbs presents a scene we can envision: a woman standing in the middle of the busiest places of our cities who calls out over the noisy crowd, trying to get people’s attention. Wisdom shouts in the streets, raises her voice in the public squares, speaks at the entrances to the city gates. In the ancient world, these were the places where people bumped into each other, where business and trade happened, where legal cases were heard, and where judgments were made. These were the crowded places of life and community. Wisdom, then, vies for our attention amid the mundane, every-day, humdrum of life.

Wisdom, personified as a woman, demands to know how long we’ll keep this up: how long we’ll prefer naïveté, mocking, and foolishness to her correction. The woman, Wisdom, tells us that she invited us and stretched out her hand to us, but we rejected her, paid no attention to her, ignored her, and didn’t want her correction. (The women in Bible study particularly enjoyed this, by the way. They sighed and said, if men would just listen).

Then, the woman Wisdom: her tone turns harsh. She almost sounds vindictive and cruel. She says she’ll laugh at the disaster that comes over those who rejected her. She’ll make fun of the dread that comes over those who paid no attention to her invitation. She won’t answer those who call out to her after terror hits us like a hurricane and disaster comes tearing through their lives like a tornado, when distress and oppression overcome them because they paid no attention to her, they ignored her before these things happened.

They’ll call to Wisdom from the eye of the storm, but she won’t answer. They’ll seek Wisdom from the upheaval of disaster, but they won’t find her. It sounds harsh because it is harsh. But it’s also reality, isn’t it? When anyone refuses wisdom’s counsel, there comes a point in their life when the stupid things they’ve done catch up with them. We’re told over and over in the Scriptures that we will reap what we sow (c.f. Proverbs 11:18, 22:8; Hosea 8:7, 10:12; Sirach 7:3; 2 Corinthians 9:6). How we judge is how we will be judged, and the measure we give is the measure we’ll get. * Or, as the woman Wisdom tells us, “They will eat the fruit of their way, and they’ll be full of their own schemes” (Proverbs 1:31 CEB).

When our own bad choices catch up with us, when living contrary to the way of God finally comes to a head, what can Wisdom do then? Wisdom is about preventive maintenance, not emergency repair. The woman Wisdom is crying out in the streets, trying to get our attention, now, so that we don’t end up in a mess later.

But how do we listen to wisdom? How do we accept her correction and respond appropriately to it? She tells us that when we respond she’ll pour out her spirit on us and reveal her wise words to us. So, how do we even begin to listen and respond?

Earlier in the chapter we’re told this: “Wisdom begins with the fear of the LORD, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7 CEB).

Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. We’ve probably all heard that before. Sometimes it’s stated the other way around, “The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” (Psalm 111:10 NRSV). Yet, that word fear is a little jarring to us. I remember talking to one of my fraternity brothers in college about fearing God, and his response was that he didn’t believe we’re supposed to be afraid of God. And he was right, to a degree, but it was a misunderstanding of the word fear as I was using it that made him say that. He was right in that our relationship with God isn’t supposed to be sniveling, trembling terror before the Lord (though some people certainly have their moments).

But the word fear, in this sense, means to have reverent respect for God, to be in awe of God, and to live obediently to God. Fear of the Lord is an ancient way of saying a person is living rightly and righteously. People who fear the Lord understand that God loves us, and we can only be in awe that the creator of heaven and earth, the God who made the Pleiades and Orion, and hung the stars in their places would deign to care for each of us so intimately that God knows the number of hairs on our head. (For some of us, it’s an easier count than others). To fear the Lord means to stand amazed at the profundity of God’s mercy and care for us. To fear the Lord means that we respond to God’s loving-kindness by offering our loving-kindness to those whom we encounter every day.

Those who fear the Lord do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Those who fear the Lord turn their belief in God into faithful actions for the world. Those who fear the Lord seek God’s kingdom first in their lives.

Those who fear the Lord sing a different song that often becomes a refrain of resistance against the bellowing discord of our culture and society. When the choruses of our society tell us who to hate, the sweet overtones of God tell those who fear of the Lord whom we need to love. When society’s songs tell us who to blame, those who fear the Lord sing a harmony of hope because we know who to accept. When the jingles of culture tell us who to despise, those who fear the Lord croon a lullaby because we know who to seek out and invite into communion with us. How do we listen to wisdom? We start by fearing the Lord and walking in the ways of our God.

The text admits that Wisdom can sometimes be difficult to hear, especially in a culture that values power, wealth, fame, and control. Yet, Wisdom raises her voice above the noisy crowd. We can hear her even through the clamor. We don’t really have an excuse for ignoring her.

The thing is, Wisdom is not some esoteric, unreachable thing that only those lonely gurus can find in meditation on mountain tops. Wisdom is found in community. Wisdom meets us in the busiest places of lives. Wisdom calls to us where we interact with each other every day. Wisdom comes to us, Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life (U.M. Hymnal #427) because wisdom is about how we relate to others. It’s about how we live in community with others. Wisdom is how we interact and love and give and serve. Wisdom is righteous living, life lived for God and for each other.

And that leads to the last verse of this passage: “Those who obey me will dwell securely, untroubled by the dread of harm” (Proverbs 1:33 CEB). It’s quite a promise. But I don’t think it means that nothing bad will ever happen to us. We know that’s not true because good things happen to good and bad people, and bad things happen to good and bad people. The promise isn’t that nothing bad will ever happen, it’s that we’ll “dwell securely, untroubled by the dread of harm.” You see, the church is a community. When trouble comes our way, as it inevitably does, we have each other. We surround each other. We pray for each other and visit each other.

Yet, for those who fear the Lord, our care and concern never stop at the edge of our church community. It extends to the broader communities in which we live, even to the ends of the earth. Wisdom calls to us in our workplaces, in our grocery stores, in our courthouses, and along our sidewalks.

When we listen to Wisdom, when we respond to her correction and amend our way of life to something that is lifegiving for others, she’ll pour out her sweet spirit upon us, and teach us her words. When we listen to wisdom, when we fear the Lord, that’s when we’re striving for God’s kingdom. Wisdom is calling. She’s been calling to the human race from the beginning, and she has called to each of us from our first breath till now. I implore us to listen and listen well, lest we eat the wayward fruit of our way rather than the sweet, life-giving fruit of the Spirit.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

*(c.f. Matthew 3:10, 7:1-2, 7:19, 12:36-37, 16:27, 25:31-46; Romans 2:6-8; 2 Corinthians 5:10; James 2:12-13; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 2:23, 2:26, 14:13, 16:11, 18:6, 20:12, 20:13, 22:12).

Dead | Proper 18

James 2:1-17

2:1 My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. 2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?

5 My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?

8 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. 9 But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10 Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. 11 The one who said, Don’t commit adultery, also said, Don’t commit murder. So if you don’t commit adultery but do commit murder, you are a lawbreaker. 12 In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. 13 There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment.

14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

Dead

For James, our deeds speak the truth about us. That’s a prominent theme throughout his letter. If we do what is evil, we prove ourselves to be unbelievers regardless of what we may say or think about ourselves. James chapter two continues the theme of authenticity and the importance of faithful activity from chapter one by stating, “My sisters and brothers, when you show favoritism you don’t hold to the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ,” (James 2:1 my translation).

James gives an example regarding a rich person and a poor person who come to the congregation of believers where preference is shown to the wealthy, while indifference is shown to the poor. The rich person is kindly offered a seat of honor, while the poor person is either told to stand or commanded to sit in a place of submission at the feet of another.

James then demands that we listen to five questions. One easy thing with the Greek language is that we always know the answer to rhetorical questions depending on which negative particle is used. One makes the answer to the question always positive, the other makes the answer to the question always negative. For these five questions, James uses the particle that makes the answer positive. So there’s no doubt as to what he’s telling us. (1) Yes, God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. (2) Yes, God has chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he promised to those who love him. (3) Yes, the wealthy make life difficult for you. (4) Yes, they are the ones who drag you into court. (5) Yes, they’re the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism.

It’s important that we remember the 1st century social context when we read these questions. When James looked at the early church, he saw a lot of people who were poor. Paul saw that, too, and wrote, “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28 CEB). This tells us that the early church was mostly made up of poor and people who were just getting by (there wasn’t really a middle-class back then).

God doesn’t like partiality. God likes equality and fairness. In fact, God demands equality and fairness from us, and that goes back to the law of Moses. “You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly” (Leviticus 19:15 CEB). James knew that the way we treat others comes from how we have judged them as worthy or unworthy of our kindness and respect.

Any judgment we make that shows partiality toward those whom the world counts as more socially acceptable or desirable over the poor or marginalized is evil. Our internal judgments result in our external actions. If we show favoritism, then it proves that we don’t have faith in Jesus Christ.

The Proverb we read today says, “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD made them both” (Proverbs 22:2 CEB). All people are created in the image of God. To dishonor anyone is to dishonor the God who created them. Whenever we show partiality and belittle someone, in a way, we belittle the God who created them and loves them. James declares that it’s impossible for a person to claim to be a Christian yet show no concern for the poor. His proof for that argument is that God shows incredible concern for the poor.

James then moves into a discussion of the law. He mentions three laws: the law of Moses, the Royal Law, and the Law of Freedom.

If we’re trying to follow the Law of Moses, we have to keep the whole thing. If we break one part of it, we’ve broken the whole thing. The Law of Moses teaches over and again that the poor, the immigrant, the refugee, the orphan, the widow—basically anyone who’s poor or vulnerable—must be cared for. In the Law of Moses, God requires that those with means must provide for the poor and vulnerable. Those who don’t are lawbreakers. The Law of Moses requires that judgments be made without favoritism or partiality. Those who show partiality or favoritism are lawbreakers.

The Royal Law is actually part of the Law of Moses. It comes from Leviticus 19:18 and was quoted by Jesus: “…you must love your neighbor as yourself…” (CEB). Jesus taught that whole of the law and prophets can be summed up in two things: love God and love others. If we love God, then we will love others, because that’s what God does! When we love our neighbors, we’re proving that we love God by showing love and mercy to those whom God loves.

Then, there’s the Law of Freedom. James tells us, “There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment” (James 2:13 CEB). It sounds very similar to what Jesus said: “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you” (Matthew 7:1-2 CEB, c.f. also Luke 6:37-38).

The Law of Freedom acknowledges that we are each free to act in whatever way we want. That’s our exercise of personal freedom. But, there are consequences to our free actions. It’s kind of like Karma: what we dish out to others is what we will receive from God. The way we judge others is how we will be judged. If we judge poor people with partiality, as unworthy of kindness or equality, well, God will judge us as unworthy of kindness or equality. If we do not show mercy to others, we will not receive mercy from God. Jesus teaches a parable about that in Matthew 18:23-35, if you want to give it a read.

What we sow is what we shall reap. God shows mercy to the merciful, just as God forgives those who forgive (c.f. Mark 4:21-25 and Matthew 6:12). There will be a judgment, and the Scriptures of the New Testament tell us that we will be judged according to what we do and say (Matthew 3:10; 7:1-2; 7:19; 12:36-37; 16:27; 25:31-46; Romans 2:6-8; 2 Corinthians 5:10; James 2:12-13; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 2:23; 2:26; 14:13; 16:11; 18:6; 20:12; 20:13; 22:12).

James then moves to the question of faith and faithful activity. He poses two questions, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?” In Greek, we know the expected answer to the second question is No, which answers the first question. Faith cannot save us. Faith without faithful activity is inadequate. Faith without faithful activity is not the faith of Jesus Christ.

To illustrate his point, James gives us an example. “Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity” (James 2:15-17 CEB).

When I was in school at Duke, Dr. Stanley Hauerwas had a poster on his door with the words, “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other” (Mennonite Church). And, every year, Divinity School students would tell him that they didn’t like that poster because they didn’t think anyone should kill anyone. And Dr. Hauerwas would shrug and say, “Well, they do call it a modest proposal.”

I think the example James uses here is a modest proposal for true faith, because he uses the example of how Christians might respond to the needs of a fellow Christian. James wouldn’t limit our faithful activity to other Christians, but his example highlights the truth that, if this is how any Christian would treat another Christian, then such a person probably is not treating the rest of the world’s poor the way God wants us to, either.

For James, words mean little when there’s no action to back it up. Our action or inaction reveals our belief or disbelief in Jesus Christ, regardless of what we say or think about ourselves. True faith results in faithful activity. Dead faith doesn’t do anyone any good: not the poor who don’t get what they actually need to live, and not us because “there will be no mercy in the judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy” (James 2:13a CEB).

So, James tells us about three laws, and showing favoritism against the poor is one way to break all of them at once. (At Bible Study on Tuesday, Mike Rynkiewich suggested my sermon title could be, The Three Laws and How to Break Them. I think that title would have worked).

On the other hand, the way we fulfill all three laws at once is to show love and care and mercy for others through faithful activity. No one wants to have dead faith. At the end of the day, our actions matter. They matter to others and, they matter to us. What we do or fail to do for the most vulnerable people among us reveals what we think of their worth, and how we have judged them. In every way, we should speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. We’re all guilty of sin. So, James tells us, we should show mercy to those who need mercy. It’s how we’ll receive mercy in the judgment, because mercy overrules judgment.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Doers | Proper 17

James 1:17-27

17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.

19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. 20 This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you– the very word that is able to save you.

22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.

26 If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. 27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us. (CEB)

Doers

Within Protestantism, the Letter of James is kind of like the family secret no one wants to talk about. It’s in our Bibles, but we’re all a little embarrassed about it because we’ve probably heard that James doesn’t quite jive with certain Protestant theology. In his preface to the New Testament, Martin Luther called James an epistle of straw compared to Paul’s letters, although he cut the statement from later editions of his Bible. Luther even wanted to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation from the canon of Christian Scripture because he didn’t agree with them for theological reasons.

If you’ve heard that, I have news that might offer a bit of relief: United Methodists aren’t really Protestants. We came out of the Church of England tradition called Anglicanism. John Wesley was a priest in the Church of England.

Anglicanism was an English thing that happened in 1534 because of a dispute about church jurisdiction (and because Henry the VIII wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon).

Protestantism was a European Continental thing that happened because of theological differences with Catholicism back in 1517.

Methodism, itself, didn’t begin until 1729 when John Wesley was a fellow at Lincoln College at Oxford, and Charles Wesley was a student. So, while we Methodists are often lumped in with Protestantism, we aren’t really Protestants. We never even protested Catholicism on theological grounds.

But back to Martin Luther.

He really liked Paul’s letters, and came up with a theology of Salvation by Faith Alone. James proved to be a stumbling block to Luther’s theology because the only place in the Bible where we can find that phrase, “faith alone” is James 2:24, which states that we are justified, or shown to be righteous, by faithful action, NOT by faith alone. Paul, from whom Luther supposedly got this idea, did not say that we are saved or justified by faith alone. The closest Paul got to it was when he said, “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith” (Ephesians 2:8a CEB). Yet, Paul went on to say, “This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives(Ephesians 2:8b-10 CEB).

Paul and James both understood that faith results in faithful action; in doing good things. John, also, spoke of the same idea in a slightly different way. He said, “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth” (1 John 3:18 CEB). When we love anyone, that love naturally leads us to do loving deeds. When we have faith, when we believe, that faith naturally leads us to faithful action.

But, of course, we don’t have love or faith apart from God as James notes: “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above” (James 1:17 CEB). We recognize God’s goodness and providence in our music every Sunday when, after our offering, we sing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” (United Methodist Hymnal #95). All we have comes from God, who made the stars above.

God chose to give us birth, James says, “by his true word” (James 1:18 CEB) with the result that James’ generation of Christians were like the first crop from the harvest of everything God created. The People of Israel offered the first fruits of their harvest to God as a way of acknowledging that God had provided the harvest, and as a way of giving thanks (c.f. Leviticus 23:9-14). Sustenance and abundance are gifts provided by God and, as an offering, those first fruits of the harvest were considered holy.

James goes on to talk about how we relate to each other. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. It sounds a lot like my mother’s wisdom, which was “think before you speak.” When we act this way, we reflect God’s character which, James has already told us, doesn’t change at all. Scripture mentions God’s patience with us in many places. Often times, patience is used alongside other words, like compassion, mercy, faithful, steadfast, and love (c.f. Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Joel 2:13, etc.). We are to show patience and forbearance with each other in our listening and in our speech because God always shows patience and forbearance with us.

James noticed that the little things matter. Our ability to listen and speak matters. Our words and our actions have meaning. Our words are how we express ourselves and recognize how others are expressing themselves. We use words to grasp and convey everything about ourselves and the world we see, taste, touch, smell, and hear! On the bathroom wall of my fraternity house, someone had written, “A drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts.” Believe it or not, I got those same words out of a fortune cookie at the China Buffett here in town. Words reveal our inner thoughts and emotions, and we need to be careful about which words we let come out of our mouth.

That old child’s rhyme that says, Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, is a horrendous lie. Words can hurt. In chapter 3, James talks about the tongue as a fire that can set a whole forest ablaze. One little word whispered over here can get out of control and cause damage beyond imagination. I’ve pastored five churches in Indiana, and I served at thirteen as a seminary student in North Carolina. I’ve seen oak-solid ministries and reputations nearly go up in smoke because of one little fiery tongue.

At the same time, I’ve seen people who’ve always been thought little of by others built up and transformed because of words that were kind and uplifting. Words can build up or tear down. When we’re quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry, we’re displaying the character traits of God. An angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness, so with humility, James encourages us to “set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness”: the stuff that leads us to angry and unholy words and deeds.

Instead, we’re to take responsibility for our anger. We often speak of our anger as if it’s everyone else’s fault. He made me angry. She made me angry. But a wise woman once told me that no one can make you angry. Your anger is your response to something. Your anger belongs to you, and you are responsible for it. Anger is strong stuff. But James doesn’t tell us to swallow our anger, or stuff it, or let it roll off our backs like water on a duck. Instead, he encourages us, with an imperative, to display the patience of God toward each other: be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.

This is hard work. I have to confess that I fail at it as often as anyone. As I was writing these very words on Friday evening, my daughters barged into the room where I was working and started asking me questions about where the electrical tape was. They were paying no attention to the fact that I was trying to write a sermon. I said, “Girls, I’m working,” but they continued to make a racquet with their questions and their clamorous search for the electrical tape. And I raised my voice. I told them, “Get out! I’m trying to work, and you’re disturbing me!” As soon as they left the room, I looked and noticed that I’d just written, “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry,” and I decided that I was done working for the evening. I couldn’t even follow James’s directions with my own daughters. It’s hard work. But it’s worthwhile work.

James tells us we should welcome the word planted deep inside of us that has the power to save us. It’s curious that James uses “word” twice. It’s λόγος (logos) in Greek. God gave us birth by the word and planted the word deep inside of us that is able to save us. At first, I wondered if James used the word “word” similarly to the way John did by connecting the Word of God with Jesus Christ (c.f. John 1:1-5, esp. 1:14). But, James follows up this counsel to welcome the word planted deep inside of us with the claim that we must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead ourselves. He continues with the example of people looking at themselves in a mirror.

Those who hear the word but don’t do the word are like those who look at their reflected image, walk away from the mirror, and forget what their image looked like. Maybe James connected the “word planted deep inside of us”—the word we’re to act upon—with the image of God in which we were created (c.f. Genesis 1:27). If so, those who fail to do the word have forgotten what the image of God within us looks like.

We’ve all likely heard the adage that Practice makes perfect. Doing is what makes habits. In fact, studies show that it takes approximately 66 days to make a new habit stick. Becoming a doer of the word requires practice. It requires commitment. It requires, as James suggests, studiousness and attention.

James recognized that our words have power. But he also recognized that our actions have more. We must be doers of the word. When we put the word into practice in our lives, it’s then that we reflect God in our character, our speech, and our actions. It’s then that we’ll be blessed in whatever we do because everything we do will be a reflection of God’s activity.

Note that it doesn’t say we’ll be successful in whatever we do; but blessed. Success is often a worldly standard that’s usually based on numbers and dollar signs. Blessedness is a gift of God’s grace.

Our actions prove or disprove our devotion to God. We can say that we have it. We can come to worship every Sunday. But if we don’t control our speech, then we’re misleading ourselves, and our claim of devotion to God is worthless. If we’re truly devoted to God, our actions will show it. James gives us two specific examples of true devotion: caring for orphans and widows and keeping the world from contaminating us.

In James’s culture, orphans and widows were the most vulnerable people in society. In many cultures today, they still are. The majority of the world’s poor are woman and children. In the United States, women are more likely to experience homelessness than men. But there are others in our society who are incredibly vulnerable. I would add refugees, immigrants, homeless, and diseased to James’s list. True devotion to God results in our activity of caring for the most vulnerable among us.

It also says we’re to keep the world from contaminating us. I think that’s a simple note for us to pay attention to the things that we’re paying attention. Are we chasing after things that the world values or the things that God values? Care for others is what God values. Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 and paraphrased 1 Samuel 15:22 when he said, twice, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, 12:7).

At the same time, I think this requirement to keep the world from contaminating us is inseparably linked to caring for others. If we want to do what God desires—if we want to internalize and live out God’s values instead of the world’s values—then we must love our neighbor as our self (c.f. Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27-37).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay