Even if you have studied just a tiny bit of church history, it’s hard to read from James’ epistle without thinking of Martin Luther. Luther famously hated James. He thought that it was a mistake that James had made it into the Bible. James was, as he put it, an epistle of straw.
Luther’s big objection was the language that we hear in the reading this morning:
Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
And in order to understand why he objected as much as he did, you need to understand a little about Luther himself. Luther suffered from a fear called scrupulosity. Scrupulosity is a word that, these days, means carrying things out with meticulous detail. But historically it meant – and referring to Luther it means – being racked by doubt. And what Luther doubted in particular was that he had remembered to confess all of his sins to God. He was afraid that he had forgotten something and, as a consequence, God would punish him, God would stop loving him, God would reject him.
And a good part of the theology that Luther ends up developing is in response to these fears, is a way of curing these fears if you like. Luther concludes that we are saved by God not because of any action that we do – not by the sins that we remember or confess, not by the service we engage in, not by the indulgences that purchase from the church. We are justified by faith alone, we are saved by God’s grace alone.
There are a set of steps right behind me. These are Paul’s words from Second Corinthians:
My grace is sufficient for thee.
And if Luther were standing on these steps he would be nodding hard. God’s grace is sufficient. We don’t need anything else. We don’t need to do anything else.
But then, elsewhere in scripture, Luther encounters James:
What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works?
And it resurfaces Luther’s old fears. And Luther says:
Oh no! James says that I have to work in order for God to love me. So James must be wrong.
I bring up this not just as a historical curiosity but because I want to suggest that Luther’s struggle with scripture is profoundly relevant to you and me right now. Because it seems to me that it is very common for people to have some fear about God – in particular a fear that God does not love us – and then go to the Bible and conclude that it confirms our fears.
So, to choose a really famous passage, we might read John 14:16, in which Jesus says:
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
And conclude that only people who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord get into heaven. And this can be enormously distressing if we know and love people who aren’t Christians, especially if we know and love people who have died who weren’t Christians.
But notice, that Jesus never says, Unless you admit that I am Lord, you won’t get into heaven. What he says is that he is the way. I don’t know if you have ever been lost, if you have ever been on the way somewhere and not known that you were on the way to that place. That has happened to me a lot. I’ve gotten turned around, I am not sure which way North is, which way home is, which way anything is.
And suddenly, I’ll turn a corner and discover I’ve arrived somewhere amazing. Maybe it’s the coolest view across a valley. Or, if I am in a city, maybe it’s the neatest building. Maybe it’s a place where people are doing something extraordinary, like the time that I ended up in Laurelhurst Park and all of these people were having a dance party but the music was coming through headphones that everyone was wearing. I had been on the way to that dance and didn’t even know it.
You can be on the way to the Father and have no idea that you are on the way. Jesus is amazing. All the time he guides us safely home despite our best efforts to get lost.
James is the same. It doesn’t say, If you don’t do the right work, God won’t love you. It says Faith without works is dead. Maybe, let’s paraphrase that just a little and see how it sounds. What if we said:
When your faith is alive it’s full of works.
James isn’t saying do the work so that God might love you. That is Luther – and maybe you and me – projecting our fears into scripture. James is saying do the work because God loves you.
Think about your own encounters with love and you will know that this has to be right. Think about a person who loved you – maybe they are still alive, who loves you – unreservedly. This is the person who, in Mr. Rogers’ glorious words, loved you into being. This is the person who wanted with everything they had to see you thrive.
Now, did that person love you only when you made good choices? When you got all A’s? When you got some amazing job?
They were proud of you when you did these things. But their love for you? It wasn’t changed and it couldn’t be. Because you couldn’t earn it. You couldn’t change it. You couldn’t deserve it. You couldn’t lessen it. Their love for you was the sun rising and rain falling down. It happened ten times out of ten.
Sometimes we are loved like that and we make disastrous choices anyway. We choose to live in a way that is kind of dead, that is not full of life. We do not respond in fullness to the love we have received.
But still the love remains.
That is what James is talking about. Luther brought his fears to this passage. But those fears weren’t in here to begin with. To the contrary, this epistle of straw is just shining with the Gospel. It is shining with good news. What James is saying is this:
You are loved by God, you are loved by God, you are loved by God.
You are loved by God til the end of the earth.
Now go let that love shine through all of your works.
Sermon for August 29th 2021 Pentecost Proper 17 Year B Track 2 Gospel Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 at Grace Memorial How do we nourish our hearts and souls and recognize God’s Grace, the Goodness Glue? Given by Deacon Doctor Elizabeth Klein
Good morning!! A warm welcome to Grace Memorial to those of you who are online and those of you who are present physically in our new space. Thank you, Father Martin, for allowing me to give the homily this morning. Thank you to each one of you who has welcomed me as your new Deacon, here at Grace Memorial. I look forward to meeting each one of you. I am discovering amazing individuals here that care greatly about this community, this neighborhood, and the world we live in. We are living in really hard times. We are struggling to live through a global pandemic, wildfires like we have never seen before, hurricanes and earthquakes. I want to remind us to breath. Breath in the Holy Spirit and let it run through your body and then breath out all the worries and stressors that we are holding within. Again, take a deep breath in, breath in the Holy Spirit and let it run through your body and then breath out…. All the worries and stressors that you are holding within. Let us prepare our hearts and minds to learn how we can feed our heart, mind and soul in healthy ways in spite of all the stressors we are enduring these days.
Our Gospel reading from Mark has much to teach us about the importance of feeding our hearts and minds in healthy ways. Our Gospel reading today tells us of Jesus being chastised by the Pharisees because some of his disciples are eating without washing their hands. How does Jesus respond? He says, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but it is from within the human heart that evil intentions come.” “It is from within the human heart that evil intentions come.”
As a retired family doctor, speaking in the midst of our COVID Pandemic, I want to clarify some things about handwashing in Jesus’ time. Jesus knows, of course, that when the scribes and Pharisees ask why some of his disciples do not wash their hands, the question is not an innocent one. It is meant to indict Jesus. Asking why some of his followers “do not live according to the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:5) is really accusing Jesus of not following the law himself, of acting as if he believes himself to be above the law. Knowing this, Jesus responds with a rebuke from Isaiah (Isaiah 7:6-7), “people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6b).
Let me clarify that ritual cleanliness has nothing to do with hygiene—Louis Pasteur will not discover germ theory until the 1860’s. Pasteur and others had great difficulty persuading physicians to wash their hands correctly before performing surgery. People of the first century had no understanding of viruses and bacteria. Pharisaic handwashing involves the use of only a small amount of water poured over the hands to wash away ritual defilement caused by touching an unclean object or person like a dead body, a leper, a menstruating woman, or a Gentile.
Jesus says, “It is from within the human heart that evil intentions come.” This is so interesting to me, because it is also from the human heart that so much good comes. Right? I have seen a lot of good coming from the hearts of people here at Grace Memorial. The supporters and organizers of the Grace Art Camp, the sack lunch program, the Passport project and the Friday Dinners for the hungry in our community and so much more.
Jesus tells us that “evil things come from within”—from the human heart—and implies that we have a responsibility to nurture holy things rather than evil things in our hearts. This is strong language in the context of a culture that prizes Jewish food laws. To say that a person is not defiled by what he or she eats is a bold statement, although in keeping with Jesus actions in other situations. Jesus touched a leper (1:41), ate with sinners (2:15-17), and was not troubled that an unclean woman touched him (5:30-34).
In recent years, we have become increasingly aware that what we take into our bodies can make a difference in our physical health and wellbeing. We know that eating healthy foods, vegetables and fruit can help decrease heart disease and strokes. I think that what we take into hearts and minds is even more important, because what we take into our hearts and minds has the potential to injure us spiritually as well as physically—to kill the soul as well as the body or alternatively help us nurture our hearts and grow into grace-filled, kind, compassionate people.
This reminds me of a story that perhaps some of you have heard. One evening an old wise Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is EVIL. It is anger, envy, jealousy, greed, arrogance, resentment, prejudice and superiority. The other is GOOD. It is love, hope, joy, peace, patience, kindness, empathy, goodness, faithfulness and gentleness.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The wise old Cherokee replied, simply… “The one you feed.”
How do we feed our hearts and minds the good things that will help us be the people God intends us to be? How do we as a community help each other feed our hearts and minds and souls in healthy nourishing ways? I think this is a great question for the 21st Century church? Our faith tells us that God is everywhere at all times and that God loves us. How can we feel God’s presence and every moment holy? It is challenging, right? Especially with all the negative information and misinformation on the news and social media. Our newspapers and media outlets do not say that most people had a good day today. They also rarely report on all the many kind acts that people do for each other all the time. How do you nourish your heart and mind and soul, in the midst of this challenging time? Maybe you come to church either on line or in person, participate in the Eucharist in person or on line, read the Bible, read the Forward Day by Day, feed those who are hungry, volunteer with the Art Camp….. I want to start a conversation about the ways that we nourish our souls in these challenging times, and I am willing to start.
I have found the Daily Examen to be helpful to view life and the others in my life as sacred. How many of you have heard of the Daily Examen? Doing the Daily Examen this last year has helped me through many hard days and continues to feed my soul. It helps me see God working through me. It helps me give thanks and praise for God’s gifts in my life and it gives me an opportunity to recognize and apologize for me faults and receive healing. The Daily Examen was developed by St Ignatius of Loyola as a 15 minute exercise that can be done daily. It is a way of life rather than a short reflection. It has changed my awareness of God working in my life and nourishing my soul.
First, I slow down and pray. Lord, I am yours. I breath in the Holy Spirit and I breath out the stressors and anxieties that I carry. I then give God thanks for all the blessings of the day; my faith, my marriage, for my sons, for my ability to cook and bake and play piano and my concern for my neighbors. Next, I ask God about ways that I did not allow God to work through me, creating anxiety, untruth, prejudice, or volatility. I try to be quiet and open to where God is calling me instead of judging myself. I then thank God for the times that I loved generously, and I pray for ways to reconcile with those I may have hurt. I pray for the fruits of the spirit to grow in me, my enemies, friends and neighbors. “Lord, thank you for walking with me yesterday and help me grow in your love today.” This practice has helped me view each moment as holy and sacred.
The sacred is all around us, which is God’s grace. The goodness of God fills all the gaps of the universe. Richard Rohr says that God is the Goodness Glue, the love that holds the dark and light of things together. As we struggle today to feed our hearts and minds the good things that help us be the people God intends us to be, let us rejoice in God’s Goodness Glue, God’s unending love for us and God’s desire for us to have healthy loving hearts and minds and bodies.
In the midst of these hard times, we need to nourish our hearts, minds and souls so we can be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. I pray that we will seek love, hope and justice in the week ahead for ourselves and those in our community. Pay attention to what feeds your soul and what does not. I encourage each of us to share with each other how we nurture our heart and soul. We can learn from each other. May we nourish our mind, body and spirit with God’s love, God’s Grace and Goodness Glue and support each other in these hard times. Amen.
A few years ago I was interning as a trainer at the College for Congregational Development just north of us in the Diocese of Olympia. I love the College. I love its curriculum, love the ways that it gives you tools to think about and to celebrate a community such as Grace Memorial, love that it’s a week during which you get to hang out with people from all over who are fired up about Jesus and about the Episcopal Church.
I was interning that year because I love this material enough that I wanted to learn how to teach it.
And that year, friends, we had a hard week. Without going in details or breaking confidences, there was a lot of stuckness and pain in the small group that I was facilitating.
Now, remember, this was my first experience as a trainer. And your first experience of anything tends to become your point of reference. It’s easy to wonder if/assume that every experience is like that first experience – maybe especially if that experience is less than awesome. If your first boyfriend is crummy you may conclude boyfriends are crummy. If your first job is stinks you may think jobs are exhausting, draining, and the pay is awful. If you begin with disappointing cheesecake you may never guess at the knee-shaking praise-be-to-God glory that is good cheesecake.
At the College that year, I got near the end of the week and said:
Is it always like this?
But then a member of our small group took me aside and said,
Boy, you had a hard first time. I saw that. I saw how you worked through the hard time, how you worked with us.
I want to give you something.
And he gave me a coin.
Some of you may have worn a set of trousers at some point – some of you may be wearing a set of trousers right now. And maybe those trousers had or have a pocket within a pocket. Often on right front side there is a big pocket, suitable for a wallet or keys or a phone. And inside of that there is a mini-pocket the purpose of which was always a mystery to me. The purpose of that pocket –
do you know?
The purpose is to hold a coin. If you are part of AA or another 12-Step tradition, this is the coin that says how long you have been sober. If you are part of a club, this coin says that you are a member. And if you are carrying the coin that the guy gave me at the College… well, can we pull up a picture of it?
This coin says that you are called to put on the armour of God.
In other words, in contains the words from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus that we hear today.
Three things about this coin. First, full disclosure: if I saw this coin in a store, it would probably never, ever occur to me to buy it. If I was in an uncharitable mood, I might even call its design hokey. The colours, the shininess, the dude who might be a crusader with everything being a crusader entails: it’s all just a little much.
Second, I’ve come to love this coin. Receiving it on that day was a big deal for me. It was an act of kindness in a super trying moment. If you like, the coin was an outward and visible sign of someone noticing the hurt that I was carrying. And maybe because of that, the coin sits on a bookshelf in our bedroom to this day.
Third, maybe because I have come to love it, this coin has invited me to think about Paul in a new way, to think about his letter to the church in Ephesus in a new way.
So. Jesus tends to teach us about the Kingdom by telling stories, by sharing parables. The Gospel of Matthew actually goes so far as to say Without a parable he told them nothing. Whereas Paul tends to teach us about the Kingdom by making arguments. Maybe you have met someone – maybe you have been someone – who says I can’t stand Paul. I think that one of the things that people mean when they say that – one of the big things – is that arguments are harder to follow than stories.
What I’d like to suggest is that, despite Paul preferring arguments to stories, what we hear today is a Pauline parable. You actually wouldn’t have to change it much to make it something that you could imagine Jesus saying. Let’s try. It could go a bit like this:
The Kingdom of heaven is like a soldier putting on armour.
First the soldier puts on a belt. And then a breastplate. And then shoes. On their one arm they place a shield and in the other they hold a sword. And on their head they wear a helmet.
Now, that soldier’s belt is like truth, their breastplate like righteousness, their shoes like readiness. Their shield is like faith, their sword like the Spirit. And the helmet? It is like salvation.
And what do the people think as they listen to the parable? What do you think? This letter is probably read out loud in the church in Ephesus. There are even people who think that Paul’s letters might have been performed, acted out like a play. Maybe imagine an actor putting on costume weaponry. Or maybe it’s a shadow play beside the fire, the shadow soldier holding their blade high. What do the people think?
Well, these people are living under Roman Occupation, living with brutal, violent oppression. So maybe they think that the Kingdom looks like coming to kill the Romans and liberate them. That’s probably what I would think if I heard this parable. If you told me that someone was strapping on the rocket launcher of righteousness and the flak jacket of truth, I’d figure that they were about to blow stuff up.
But then Paul does something straight out of the Jesus playbook. He takes the parable and he turns the steering wheel hard. Reversal. Screaming tires and g-forces pushing you into your chair reversal. Suddenly we are facing a whole new direction.
What does putting on all of this gear do?
It makes you ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace.
Our ancestors, just like us, lived in a culture in which they heard the regularly heard message:
The Kingdom is coming… if you just get the violence right.
If you just get the violence right, that violence will become redemptive. It will lead you into salvation.
And Paul and Jesus say no. The only thing that can invite salvation nearer is the Gospel of Peace. The prophets all say the same thing by the way. Do you know Dr. King’s famous words?
Hate cannot drive out hate.
Only love can do that.
We are called to put on an armour and take up a sword that let us wage peace. And waging peace might be harder than waging war. Because to wage peace in 1960s America meant that people sat at lunch counters and did not raise their voices or strike back when someone spat in their faces. Waging peace in 1940s India meant exposing violence by refusing to reciprocate it. What does waging Peace look like right now?
In a place like Portland, it might begin with a first step as impossible as allowing that someone wearing a red hat that says Make America Great Again hat is a beloved child of God, that someone refusing to get vaccinated is a beloved child of God, that the My Pillow Guy is a beloved child of God.
And if that sounds hard – and holy smokes, it’s hard for me: I fail at this stuff spectacularly and early and often – here’s the good news.
You don’t have to do any of it by yourself.
All of the gear required for waging the Gospel of Peace is made in community. Very few people have the chops to make a sword and also make shoes also make a belt. Most of us don’t know how to make any of that stuff. The shoes come from a cobbler, the sword from a blacksmith, the belt from a tanner, the helmet from Doug’s Helmet Emporium. Someone helps you fit it. Someone trains you to use the sword. If the armour is heavy enough, someone even helps you to put it on.
The Gospel of Peace is not and never was a solo enterprise. It is not and never was something that you have to do alone.
I imagine the soldier on that goofy coin that I love, marching into a battle unlike any other, a battle of reversal in which the soldier will abandon violence and build the kingdom of peace. And then I imagine the camera zooming out and revealing that the soldier does not march alone. There are hundreds (thousands, millions?) of us, all marching together.
Does not Wisdom call
From the heights,
On the Way?
At each crossroads
Wisdom is taking her stand.
To you, O people,
And her cry is to all who live.
- Music and words by the Reverend Sylvia Miller-Mutia, based on Proverbs 8:1-4
110 or so years later, we are back under a tent.
As many of you know, Grace Memorial began in a tent. Before there was any kind of building at 17th and Weidler, there was canvas held up by poles.
Back then, like this morning, there was no concrete, no linoleum, no soaring beams holding up a ceiling.
And back then, like this morning, there still was church.
Grace is not as old as some parishes in, say, Europe. It is not 800 years old or 1500 years old. But it is old enough that no one here today is a founding member of the parish. Everyone who gathered to worship God in this place near the beginning of the 20th Century has gone to their reward.
And yet, together, we remember our beginning. We have this corporate recollection of that day circa 1909 when the tent first went up and the first hymns were sung and the first words from the Book of Common Prayer were prayed in this space. Now, a century and change later, there is an echo of that day across time.
Our return to the tent is a small, a modest illustration of the famous aphorism:
History does not repeat itself.
But it does rhyme.
In this holy rhyming moment, I am wondering about the people who stood here 112 years ago. I am wondering about their dreams – their dreams for themselves and their dreams for this place and their dreams for what Jesus might do in their midst. I am wondering about what kind of community they sought, with God’s help, to imagine into being here. I am wondering what they guessed about the future, how much of their path heading forward they saw.
Who did they know – or want – themselves to be? Who did they know – or want – their new community to be?
I am wondering about this stuff not just because of the tent but also because we, like our ancestors at this parish, are planning on building something new here outside of the tent. Our plan is to build affordable housing, amazing space for Art Camp and PHAME, and a new parish hall.
Now sometimes, when folks hear about this project, they will ask:
Why in the world would a church thinking about doing that?
You may have noticed that, here in the Pacific Northwest, church doesn’t always have the highest popularity rating. Some of our neighbours are suspicious of Christians. And in fairness to them, some churches have given them really good reasons to be suspicious of Christians. Their question is a fair one.
As I’ve thought about the question, however, I realise that in order to answer it, I need to reframe it a little. Because the question actually isn’t
Why is Grace thinking about doing this project?
Why did Grace, beginning 112 years ago, choose to understand this physical location and the community that is rooted here as a gift to our city?
Because think about the Friday Feast. That is, and always was, about being the hands and feet of Christ, and feeding people. Think about Art Camp. That is, and always was, about being the hands and feet of Christ, and creating beauty. Think about our partnership with PHAME. That is, and always was about being the hand and feet of Christ and creating community.
This place has always been (or at least it’s always tried – sometimes we have failed) about Wisdom, about building Wisdom’s house.
You that are simple, turn in here,
Eat of my bread and drink of my wine.
Wisdom invites us to build a place where everyone is welcome where everyone gets fed. To build a place where none are strangers, where all are neighbours. To build a place where everyone is invited to find freedom, to find joy, to find wonder. To build a place where love can dwell. Where Jesus is known and made known.
That is what is we have been seeking to do in this place for 112 years. The campus development project isn’t something brand new. It is a new expression, yes, a new rhyme. But what it rhymes with is the history that began in that tent 112 years ago, that began in Jerusalem 1900 years before that.
From the very beginning, from the very first tent post driven into the ground, our goal has been to share the bread and the wine and the good news of Jesus in this place. Why did we do it then? Why do we do it still? Because it’s what Wisdom calls us to. And in saying yes to that call we find joy and freedom and love. At our best, we share it with the world.
Does not Wisdom call
From the heights,
On the Way?
At each crossroads
Wisdom is taking her stand.
To you, O people,
And her cry is to all who live.