glory of god

glory of god

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On Faith, Politics, & the "Epistle of Straw": A Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost

In the letter of James we read:  “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers, who deceive themselves.”

I don’t know if you are aware of it, but this is a rather famous biblical passage, to the extent that any biblical passage is famous.  It’s famous first, because it sums up the point of the Letter of James–that our faith is not, in its fullest sense, simply something that we hold as special or sacred in our hearts, but rather that our faith, when it is lived to the full, also directs our lives, it shapes who we are and what we do.  But you know, it might be just as right to say that this biblical passage is infamous, because throughout Christian history there have been those who have questioned whether the Letter of James is worthy of its place in the Bible. You may not have known that there are controversial books of the Bible, but there are, and we are hearing from two of them this morning–The Song of Solomon and the Letter of James. Tradition states that the Letter of James was written by Jesus' brother, James of Jerusalem, but we don't know that for certain.

Chief among critics of both of these books was the reformer Martin Luther, who called James “a right strawy epistle,” meaning that like straw it had no real substance or nourishment for the Christian soul, since it places emphasis more on the work we do and the way we live our lives, than what it is that we believe about God, or Jesus, and the work that Jesus has done for us to bring us salvation.  Luther, and those following him, primarily in Protestant circles, have believed that the teachings in the Letter of James lead too easily to the idea that we can be saved by our works–rather than by the grace of God given us in Jesus Christ.  For Christians of this school of thought, our salvation comes not by what we do–by being good people, by striving hard, by living perfect or near perfect lives–but instead in trusting that somehow, in some mysterious way, God’s love, care, and forgiveness is held out to us, even though we sin, even though we fail, even though our lives are far from perfect.

Of course the trouble is that it has been easy for Christians to get stuck making one or the other argument–that we are saved by God’s grace alone or that we are saved, at least in part, by what we do.  Unfortunately, when we do that, when we get stuck on one side or the other, we lose sight of the great mystery of a faith that is both believed and lived, simultaneously.   Several years ago I recall reading that Hillary Clinton stated that her favorite book of the Bible is James–because of its emphasis on social justice, on living the word, doing the word, as our reading says this morning.  Then, shortly thereafter, I read an editorial in a magazine called The Christian Century, in which the magazine’s editor Martin Marty–a theologian and church historian--criticized Clinton’s choice, since James is, as Martin Luther suggests, “the Epistle of Straw.” 

While it is true that the Letter of James does not have the same theological depth or substance as Romans or Ephesians, I actually think that it compliments these weightier books rather well in the way that it calls us both to be hearers and also doers of God’s word.  It calls us to be healers and reconcilers, to build up and set free.   We don’t do that work because it will earn us salvation, a place in heaven or a place in God’s heart, those are already promised to us, but because we want others to know that we care for them, and especially that God cares for them.  It’s because we believe in the promises of the gospel that we want to share them and act upon them, to be co-workers with God in bringing health and wholeness, new hope and new life to those around us.

I hope that we all know that faith, at its best, at its most vibrant, is something that shapes the whole of our lives, not just what we do for an hour on Sunday mornings.  At its fullest, faith, and in particular the Christian faith, as the Letter of James suggests, has the power permeate the whole of our being and direct everything about us, including our values--what we do with our money, the risks we take, how we treat people.  I talk about that a lot in baptismal preparation classes.  How the faith that we are baptized into is not a one-day affair, but an every day affair.  They are not Sunday promises, but every day promises: to seek and serve Christ is all people, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. 

This sermon comes on the weekend between our country’s two big political conventions.  The Republicans and Mitt Romney had their party last week and laid out their vision for the nation, and next week it will be President Obama and the Democrats’ turn.  As ever, there’s a lot of big talk, some insults, distortions of each others' records and proposals, alongside the balloons, inspiring biographies, and more positive proposals and promises.  I’m sort of a political junkie, so it gets me excited, even when I am hearing speeches that I don’t agree with.  I inherited that from my dad, I think, who was likewise really into politics and conventions.  Because it’s a holiday weekend, I am going to step a little into the political fray, which I don’t usually do in sermons, and I promise to try not to offend or alienate anyone, since I know that here at Emmanuel all political views and parties are represented, which by the way, is how it should be.  We should be a church in which all are welcome and included, in which there are "no outcasts."

My introduction to politics came very early, indeed.  Just four days after I was born in November of 1972, as my parents were heading home from the hospital with little baby me, they made their first stop at the polls on election day to vote for president: for none other than George McGovern (the last time Minnesota went Republican in a presidential election).  Living in Minnesota, my parents were also big supporters of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.  (One certainly can’t say that they only supported the winners!)  Somewhere in my old bedroom closet we even have a signed portrait of Hubert Humphrey addressed to my father, and when I was 11 I bought my first piece of campaign propaganda at the Minnesota State Fair, just about this time of year some 28 years ago: an extraordinarily large Walter Mondale-Geraldine Ferraro button.  My parents did not buy it for me or put me up to it.  I paid for it all on my own.  It was my prize possession: it had their pictures on it and I proudly, boldly wore it absolutely everywhere.  Although, I do remember covering the button up at the State Fair, just after I bought it, when I shook hands with one of our senators who was a Republican. I guess I didn’t want to offend him.  Being from Minnesota, Mondale’s home state, I was convinced that Mondale couldn’t lose! 

Of course, in the end Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan in one of the biggest landslides ever, only winning Minnesota and Washington, DC.  Even Massachusetts voted Republican that year!  Mondale actually did better in the nationwide popular vote than McGovern in 1972 (who only won Massachusetts), but Mondale got fewer electoral votes.  Ever since then, I have been deeply interested in politics and government, so much so that alongside my college majors in religion and Scandinavian Studies, I did a minor in political science.  I had wanted to major in that, too, but I didn’t have enough electives to allow for a triple major without staying an extra year.

You know, as exciting (and frustrating) as election season can be, hopefully underneath all the promises and mud slinging is also a desire on all sides to make our country a better, stronger, and healthier place.  In watching the Republican Convention this past week I was quite touched in learning some personal things about Mitt Romney that I hadn’t known, even though he was governor here.  For example, the way he, as a Mormon bishop (like a lay pastor), lovingly cared for his fellow church members when they were in need.  While those stories were obviously added to his narrative to soften his image away from that of a shrewd millionaire businessman, what they also did for me is show how Romney, like Hillary Clinton, has at the center of his being the desire expressed in the Letter of James, not only to be a hearer of the word, but also a doer.  I was pleased to know that he seeks to translate his faith into deeds that can improve the lives of others.  And, of course, by extrapolation, the hope is that he would do the same as president, if he were elected, not only for the people of his church, but the people of our nation, through his leadership.  You don’t necessarily have to agree with his political positions to be inspired by his faith and the impact it has had on his life and the life of those around him. 

When you think about it, our country and our national political discourse would be a lot stronger, a lot healthier, if our leaders were able to recognize the various ways that their opponents are inspired by their faith to make society better —whether that’s a religious faith in God or a less religious, but still strong faith in the human community.  For example, I would really love it if President Obama and the Democrats were to say, "We understand why Romney and the Republicans advocate lower taxes and less government, because they believe that it can lead to a more robust environment for business and job creation, which will help people in the long run."  Or if Republicans were willing to say, "We understand why Obama and the Democrats favor a national health care plan, because we know that deep in their hearts they want to help the people of our nation to be healthier and live better lives, whatever their economic or social status."  

It doesn’t mean that they have to agree with each other’s policy proposals, but it would mean, I think, that they would begin their debates and conversations in a spirit of greater respect, and not only that, but also that they would understand that behind the policy proposals are, in fact, positive motivations that are intended to help improve the life of our nation, and most especially the lives of individuals within our nation.  That is not a Democratic or Republican desire.  It is, I hope, a human desire.  Most certainly it is a Christian desire.

Most of us will not have the opportunity to serve as governor, senator, secretary of state, or president.  Probably we will not be given the privilege and the responsibility of crafting laws that can change the lives of millions of people.  So, our areas of influence are much more modest.  But that doesn’t mean that we, too, in our own communities, in our own ways, can’t also be inspired by James’ call to be not only hearers of the word, but also doers, whether we are liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans, or anything in between.

Touching the lives of others.  Bringing comfort where there is sorrow.  Bringing hope where there is despair. Working to liberate those suffering under oppression.  Making lives better.  You know, the name of this church–Emmanuel–means God with us.  I don’t think that this presence, God’s presence, is simply limited to our hearts and souls; rather, at its best it radiates out from there and extends also to our hands and our feet, empowering us to bring God to others, to make God’s presence known and felt throughout the world, where ever we go.  So that all of God’s people may be blessed and healed and set free.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell



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