Toorak Uniting Church

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More than do-gooders

James 1: 17 – 27     Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13     Mark 7: 1 – 23
Rev. Ian Brown
31 August 2003

Some legalistic types came from the city to have a sniff around and check out the popular country preacher, - perhaps they had a vacant preaching place they were looking to fill! or maybe they were feeling a little uneasy.

But what they noticed, first thing, was that some of his friends didn’t wash their hands before they ate!

Perhaps they’d all had an over strict Kinder teacher or obsessive nannies, who knows, but this was a big issue for them!

Jesus puts them in their place with a quote from the prophet Isaiah,
"This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines."   Jesus calls the crowd to hear - he says "it’s not what goes into you that will make you unclean, but what comes out of you, what you do and what you say."

So what makes worship valid, what are true doctrines?

What are the right things to come out of us?

I’m going to look to James to help us out with these questions.
James was obviously a man of action.
"Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers" he says with all the charming tact and sophistication of a sledge hammer, or perhaps a laser-guided missile!
Bang! He hits the spot directly.
James wanted no one to be in any doubt.
No clever metaphors with room for interpretation here.
No poetic subtleties, no evocative imagery,
no room for misunderstanding.

"If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues, but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless."

"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself pure."

How we use our tongues, the pliability of truth, the correspondence of word and action are always matters of controversy in public and private life. From the questions of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus, to the "but I thought you said" over the kitchen table, it’s a live point of contention. And the news has been full of it again this week.

The rubbery use of truth we often see is like the story of a canny restauranteur who was taken to court on a charge of using horsemeat in his chicken dishes. Before passing sentence the judge asked him what proportions of the two he was mixing.   On oath, the restauranteur replied, "50/50 your honour."   After a lenient penalty was given a friend asked him what exactly he meant by 50/50.   "One horse to one chicken," came the reply.
We often like to play with words to bend the truth a little, but not James.

James little circular to the early church - just 108 verses, is full of "moral exhortation."   A little used term in our days, it’s what fire and brimstone preachers used to move onto after they had everyone squirming with guilt.   "This, then is how you ought to live. Do these things to live holy lives. Do this and don’t do that, any more!"   Moral exhortation, what we do.

Martin Luther made James Letter famous by wanting to cut it out of his Bible. Not enough about Jesus, or salvation by grace, he complained. Too much on the works of faith, he thought - there are 59 imperatives in five short chapters. 59 things we should do, or not do.   Maybe Martin Luther had a nagging mother who used the same method and this let James get under his skin, I don’t know.
But there is more here than being a do-gooder, much more than the mistaken notion of earning one’s way with God.

James begins his list of exhortations with a reason.
The reason for wanting to do these good things is a theological reason; it has God at the heart of it.
"Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from God" says James.
Generosity and giving are the very nature of God, so we also, who are children of this father should bear the same kind of fruit. It might sound better to our ears if we re-frame James’ moral demands with the reasoning attached to each one.

Be generous givers in all you do, because God is generous with you.
Be generous in grace to others by watching your tongue because God is generous in his grace with you.
Be generous in your listening, be slow to respond in anger, because God is generous in doing these to you.
Be generous in caring for the widows and orphans - the vulnerable ones in your community - the refugees, the unemployed, the homeless - because God is generous with you in your vulnerability.

This makes the "mean Christian" an oxymoron.   The very spirit of Christianity is one of generosity, "every generous act of giving, every perfect gift is from above." To be mean, stingy, quick to judge, short of temper or lacking in thoughtfulness for others is the antithesis of God’s spirit.

James just wants us to know that, and to know it in no uncertain terms, precisely I think, because we humans so often get wrong in just this very area! We get used to rules being more important than the people they are given to help, we get used to thinking our cultural habits are the "right"ways and that everyone should do as we do, and it’s not too hard to blame the poor, the unsuccessful, the vulnerable in our society for their own situation and conclude they should help themselves. But James makes it very clear that this is not a Christian way to live.

God’s way is one of generosity of spirit.
And the Song of Solomon is a beautiful example of that generosity in its generosity of language, generosity of poetry, of expression of intimate love.
"My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."

The fact that this celebration of the sensual has a place in the scriptures of our faith tradition ought to make it clear to us that such a generosity of spirit, of love, is part of God’s nature. Scripture itself is not mean, tight, hidebound or stingy - in its limited human expression it tries to faithfully echo the glimpses of God we occasionally catch.
Our God is a generous lover. - just look at the created beauty Springing into bloom around us!
Our God is generous in hearing us and slow to anger with us - and just as well too!
Our God wants us to act after the pattern God sets; of generosity, of love of caring action:

A certain Rabbi had the habit of disappearing every Sabbath eve. This intrigued his flock and many suspected that he secretly met with the Almighty, so inspiring was he in expounding the scriptures in the synagogue.   So they sent a spy to follow him.
He saw the Rabbi, dressed in old rags, go to the home of a gentile woman who was paralyzed. He watched the Rabbi do house work and prepare a meal for her.
When the wise old spy reported, they asked him, ‘where did our Rabbi go, did he ascend to heaven?" No, he replied, he went even higher."

Where is our "higher calling" - yours and mine, our together as a church community, where can we, where do we reflect God’s generosity to us?
More than do-gooders we are all called to the ministry of reflecting God’s generous love to others in all that we do and say.
Thanks be to God, who can work such miracles even in us.

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2003

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