Sunday, August 30th, 2015 – 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
Hymns: “Blessed Be Your Name”, “Praise the Lord!”, “The Gift of Love”, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”, “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian”, “All Who Are Thirsty”, “Take My Life and Let It Be”
Less Talking, More Doing
There’s nothing quite like jamming a lot of stuff into a very short period of time. For me, that very short period of time would be the last two weeks. During that time, I met with the crews of numerous Coast Guard cutters, got underway on two different Coast Guard patrol boats – and actually got to drive one of them! – went for a flight on a Coast Guard Blackhawk helicopter, and visited units at half a dozen different Coast Guard stations.
All of this was incredible, and yet, the thing that may stick with me more than anything else was a low key meeting that was possibly one of the most common things I witnessed during my training.
This is no doubt something that has happened time and time again in each branch of the service over the last two hundred plus years (although, admittedly, early on in our country’s history, what I’m about to describe would’ve involved floggings, which the Navy Chaplain Corps mercifully pushed to have abolished in the early 1800s). A young man, just a few short months out of boot camp, found himself falling behind under the mountain of work piled upon new members of the armed services. He grew frustrated with what he perceived to be failure, frustration which was only compounded by the typical teasing and rites of passage that accompany being new to the services.
Now, over the years, when these things happen, these young men and women have generally been counseled by their superiors, encouraged to keep pushing forward, and given help in creating a plan of action. However, in the last few years, the armed services have seen the rise of a truly problematic distraction in these young people’s lives:
Social networking. Facebook and Twitter have become the bane of the armed services when it comes to working with their young men and women, and such was the problem in this case. Having let his frustration boil over, the young man had taken to Twitter to express his anger with his command and his fellow Coast Guardsmen, and had, in a very rash moment of anger, expressed his desire to use his martial arts training to inflict some serious damage on some people.
As you might imagine, that sets off alarm bells. All of the alarm bells, really, because in the six years that have passed since Maj. Nidal Hasan went on his shooting rampage at Fort Hood, the armed services have kept a very close eye on anything that could lead to trouble, and this got the Coast Guard’s attention.
Fortunately, it was very quickly determined that the young man had just lashed out in a moment of anger. He had no intention of hurting himself or anybody else – he was just frustrated. So, his commanding officer asked him to work with the command cadre to develop a plan of action to work through the frustrations and take care of the obstacles that were frustrating him. He agreed to do so, which satisfied his C.O.
The senior chaplain, on the other hand, wasn’t quite satisfied. Leaning forward he said, “What assurances can you give me that you’re actually going to follow through?”
As I stood back in the corner of the office, observing the interaction, I was struck by the question. I don’t know that I would have thought to ask it. Of course, the senior chaplain has been in ministry since before I was born, so he’s been around the block a few more times than I have.
What he wanted to know, though, was that this young man was going to not just talk the talk, but that he was going to walk the walk as well. He wanted to know that this young man was not just going to create his action plan, but that he was going to complete his action plan, take care of the things frustrating him in his life, and be the best Coast Guardsman that he could be.
Putting action to your words is exactly what the author of the epistle of James is asking of us in today’s New Testament reading. “You must be doers of the word,” he tells us, “and not only hearers who mislead themselves.” It’s not good enough to just hear the word and speak it, we actually have to live it.
This doctrine is something that’s been problematic for Protestants ever since the Reformation began five hundred years ago. Martin Luther’s entire problem with the Roman Catholic Church stemmed from the fact that they were offering indulgences – remission of sins in exchange for money. Luther insisted, and rightly so, that no action of man can save us – as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, it is by faith alone we are saved, through grace, and this is not of ourselves – it is the gift of God.
Unfortunately, innumerable Christians since then have taken that as a kind of carte blanche to state that they have faith, and trust that that alone will save them. After all, if no action of man can save a person, and if our sins are forgiven through the grace of God, then why indeed should we act? What’s the point?
Back in 1994, one of the greatest records of the contemporary Christian music scene of the later twentieth century was released, dc Talk’s Jesus Freak. In a brief spoken word interlude between the title track and the song “What if I Stumble”, Franciscan priest Brennan Manning is heard to say, “The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
This meant very little to me at the age of twelve, as I was just then beginning to understand what atheism even meant, but as I grew older and began to be exposed to my namesake book of the Bible, I understood what Father Brennan was trying to communicate here. If you claim to have faith but you don’t back it up with your life, you’re basically being a worthless Christian.
“Those who hear the word but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror,” James goes on. “They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like.” When a person’s only exposure to the Gospel all week is for an hour or two on Sunday morning, and they’re not living it in their lives, not studying it, not having any sort of regular interaction with God, how well do they really remember what it actually means to be a Christian? There’s a reason that James goes on in the next chapter to tell his readers that faith without works is dead. Think of your faith as being like a muscle – if you don’t exercise that muscle, it atrophies and becomes worthless. If you go without practicing it for too long, you forget what it looks like. You forget what YOU look like as a Christian.
The author of James is believed to have written this letter sometime between 255-275 A.D., meaning that when he wrote it, his audience would’ve consisted of a very diverse group of Christians that included both those who had come to faith from Judaism and those who had come to faith from Gentilic belief systems, especially the Greeks. And so, while he tended to mix faith and intellectualism with abandon throughout his letter, he could be sure that his audiences had read or at least heard the Gospel teachings of Jesus, such as those found in today’s reading from Mark 7. A reasonable expectation of knowledge or at least access to this particular passage would’ve fueled James’ rationale for creating his mini-sermon in Chapter 1.
So, as we all know, the Pharisees were a major thorn in Jesus’ side. For the entire duration of his earthly ministry, they pestered him with one question after another, trying to trap him in a contradiction, an error, or an outright lie. They were persistent, too – their utter lack of success never managed to deter them.
Above and beyond that, they made sure to let Jesus know their displeasure with everything he or his followers did that they didn’t agree with. Taught something that disagreed with what they thought? They made sure to let him know. Healed somebody on the Sabbath? They made sure to let him know. His disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating?
Okay, okay, I get that we’re supposed to wash our hands before we eat, but in this case, it was much more than that. Orthodox Jewish people in the time of the Pharisees would undergo an elaborate cleansing ritual prior to eating that would supposedly prevent them from causing their food to be unclean. Granted, it was more a “make us feel better about being clean” thing than anything else, and for that reason, Jesus didn’t particularly care that the disciples weren’t engaging in the full cleansing ritual before eating.
The Pharisees did, though. “Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders?”
Jesus didn’t have time for their nonsense, though. “You hypocrites,” he said to them. “You honor God with your lips, but your hearts are far away from God. Your worship is empty since you teach instructions that are human words.”
Now if you think about it, that really calls into question every part of our worship. The liturgies we undertake during worship are human words. The hymns we sing are human words. Even the Scriptures we teach – yes, they are the inspired Word of God, but at the end of the day, they were still written down by human beings, with the assembled words that we call the Bible having been selected and put together by human beings. And my sermons? Oh, especially my sermons. Yes, I’m guided by the Holy Spirit, but there is nothing that is more “human word” in the worship service than that which comes from the preacher.
And it is because of that emptiness of the Pharisees’ belief that the words of James were so important to the third century church and remain so important to us today. With the human nature of every element of our worship services, it is vitally important that we do worship for the right reasons. It is mandatory that the words we speak on Sunday morning be backed up by the actions we take the rest of the week. Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror – they look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like.
The difference between just talking and actually doing can mean the difference between a church just surviving and a church thriving. The church that talks about living today can carry on being that church, but it’s the church that takes action on those words that will actually thrive and make a difference in today’s world. The most truly practical example I can think of? The difference between just talking and actually doing is the difference between on the one hand, saying, “Oh, a community center, wouldn’t that be nice,” and on the other hand, actually building the Antioch Fellowship Center and having it be nearly paid off inside of ten years.
When the young man whose counseling session I observed joined the Coast Guard, he made a promise summed up in two Latin words: Semper Paratus. Always prepared is the motto of the Coast Guard. And while it is all well and good for him and every other young man and woman sworn in to say that they will be always prepared, what the senior chaplain wanted to know was if he was willing to follow through on that promise.
It’s not enough to just talk the talk. If we want to truly follow Christ, we also have to walk the walk. If we’re carrying out the mission to which Christ has called us, then sometimes, we need less talking, and more doing.