by the Rev. James B. Craven III
In the name of one God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
If the apostle Paul taught us anything, it was the notion of sola fide, by faith alone, that we are justified, saved, forgiven not by virtue of any good works we may have done, but by faith alone, by our steadfast belief in God as revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ. Believe, that’s all it takes.
James, the brother of the Lord and the Bishop of the early church at Jerusalem, is the probable author of the epistle of James from which we heard earlier. If James was Jesus’ brother and the son of Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary, DNA ought to count for something. James didn’t rebut Paul, but he did expand on what Paul wrote, and there are good reasons James is in the New Testament biblical canon. I don’t think James really disagreed with Paul, but he has been read that way, particularly by Martin Luther, who notably called James “an epistle of straw” and felt it did not belong in Holy Scripture. Why ? Well let’s see. You can, by the way, read all five chapters of James in a short sitting. Try it at home, but be forewarned that reading the Bible is not unlike eating popcorn. It’s hard to stop. So let’s look at what James had to say, likely about 60 AD.
Every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, is from above. In other words, in giving generously we are acting on divine motivation…Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word. The word made flesh, the word of Holy Scripture, implanted in our heart. Nothing for Martin Luther to object to there.
But be doers of the word and not merely hearers. Here’s where James begins to get Luther’s attention. Now Luther would probably have agreed that folks motivated to act by the word of God, the word made flesh, likely would do good things, good works, in grateful response. Remember though how powerfully Luther felt Paul’s holy thesis of sola fide. Faith alone is what justifies or saves us. Again, are Luther and James that far apart ? James’ skepticism was reserved for those who hear the Word, yet for whatever reason don’t act on it. Those who don’t understand that the most important thing we do here every Sunday is to leave, to go out of this holy place to be the hands and feet of Christ here on this earth, now, in the time of this mortal life. What would distress Luther, James and Paul would be to see people doing good works in order to impress others, and to impress God. As T.S. Eliot put it in Murder in the Cathedral, “The last act is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” We can’t fool God, though that doesn’t keep us from trying. Will Rainey of Burke County has made his way into sermons here for some years. Will, who in the mountain vernacular was “bad to drink” was trying to sleep off a protracted drunk. He was awakened by his wife crying out. “Lord, help my poor drunk husband,” whereupon Will hollered out “Honey, don’t tell him I’m drunk, tell him I’m sick.” We must remember also that hypocrisy is a much overlooked virtue. Hypocrisy has obliged all sorts of otherwise wretched folks to lead exemplary lives solely from fear of scorn. In the Gospel today, from Mark, Jesus quotes Isaiah, on the vice of hypocrisy.
Jesus was right on, at the end of today’s Gospel reading. If any think they are religious…but deceive their heart, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself untainted by the world.
So, join up with Habitat for Humanity, build houses for the homeless, volunteer with hospice, visit the dying, visit the homeless, particularly in this time of pandemic, visit those in prison, welcome into this place those released from prison. Help those in search of alternatives to abortion. And be consistent in supporting life, work for an end to the death penalty too. Love and support the lonely and those in the foster care system. Speak out against bigotry, and for the cause of peace. Protect those in the armed forces, in harm’s way, and remember with gratitude those who have given their lives in the service of their country. Know that all gave some and some gave all.
Do all these things, and I am sure we all have our own list, and thereby be doers of the word, not hearers only. All these examples involve tangible acts, but there is more we can do too, again for the right reasons. Desmond Tutu, the late Archbishop of Cape Town, was asked once if he thought prayer worked. He said he didn’t know, but what he did know was that “When I stop praying, coincidences stop happening.” And Nelson Mandela, also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who grew up only a block from Desmond Tutu, in the Soweto Township of South Africa, wrote from his prison cell on Robben Island south of Cape Town that he was supremely confident he would be freed from his confinement. “How could it be otherwise “he asked when people are praying for me in faraway places like California?” Indeed.
I cannot remember where I saw it, but recently I ran across an allegory of prayer that made a lot of sense, though I would never have imagined it. You can’t make this up:
After a meal, flossing is a retroactive
prayer – a tardy blessing for the finished
meal I should have prefaced with a thank you note.
It’s never too late for taking a bird’s eye view of
one’s own sins. Consumption is the peccadillo;
flossing is the pardon.
If only we could remove, with a
string of unwaxed mint-flavored Reach,
the sin of a mishandled environment, a
world laid waste by unchecked fires and
spoiled oceans! If only we could floss
away our civilization’s crimes!
My dear friend and role model, Lex Matthews, was asked when he appeared before the Commission on Ministry of the Diocese of the Gulf Coast, to describe his prayer life. He said that essentially it consisted in underlining things in a book. I’m sure my answer to the same question was much longer, but then Lex was approved for ordination the first time through, and I was not. When I was at the Divinity School at Duke, Lex gave me a box full of his seminary books. The first thing I had to do was to take a knife and slit the pages. And the books even smelled new. His favorite Bible verse was Hebrews 13:8, which he heard in the Navy. Lex was a cook on the submarine USS Piper in the Korean War. One day the skipper said to him “Matthews, your cooking reminds me of a Bible verse, Hebrews 13:8, Jesus Christ the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” But Lex understood prayer too. Maybe 35 years ago, the treasurer of the Chapel of the Cross, an old friend of Lex’s, was being sentenced for embezzlement. Up the steps of the federal courthouse here in Durham, went Lex, me, the penitent miscreant, and my law school classmate Peter Lee, later the Bishop of Virginia. It was Good Friday, and Lex prompted us, “Remember. On three, Give us Barabbas.” I loved Lex, and learned so much from him.
To get back to James, the Lord’s brother, being doer of the word can involve far more than tangible actions. Monistics for almost 2000 years have engaged in prayer for all of us. The monastic hours are Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. These are compressed in our Book of Common Prayer into Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. Try to read Compline at bedtime, but be forewarned, you may get hooked on it. Read leisurely it takes maybe 5 minutes. My favorite prayer in the prayer book is a part of the Compline liturgy:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who
sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
This lovely prayer comes to us from Augustine of Canterbury, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, who was sent to England in 596 by Pope Gregory the Great. It covers it all. Tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, and shield the joyous. And in our praying, for others, for peace, for healing of body, of mind, healing of the spirit, healing of broken relationships, healing among nations, and healing in this holy place, we are doers of the word, and James would approve, Luther too. Action and prayer go together. In fact they may be inseparable. A fellow says he is hungry and sick. We don’t just say “Well peace be with you, my friend, be filled and healed.” That’s fine as long as it is accompanied by “Can I help? How about a good meal? Come see me tomorrow too. Let me take you to the Lincoln Community Health Center where our own Dr. Tom Barber practices, and where they don’t require insurance or a copay. And also where good loving care is available.”
I have been asked how to pray, and I like to say that you don’t have to use words. Unlike the priest and the Levite, the Good Samaritan who attempted to help the poor guy who was beaten, robbed, and thrown into a ditch exemplified prayer in action. One of his disciples asked Jesus how to pray, saying,
“Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Jesus said “Pray then like this:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hollowed by thy Name,
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Notice how it ends in the original Greek of Matthew, “but deliver us from evil.” That’s the way it ends in our Compline liturgy, and in the liturgy of our Roman Catholic colleagues, but in most places in the Prayer Book, it includes the doxology. “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.” Some of the ancient writings have it that way but most Biblical scholars have the Lord’s Prayer ending simply. “But deliver us from evil.” And for sure it is an all purpose prayer. In a book I read recently about a Japanese submarine torpedoing an American destroyer, a ship too small for a chaplain. An officer recited the Lord’s Prayer each time a shipmate was buried at sea.
These things are important, and we need to hear them and remember them. As we are taught in Deuteronomy:
But take care and watch yourselves closely,
so as neither to forget the things that your eyes
have seen nor to let them slip from your mind
all the days of your life; make them known to
your children and your children’s children.
In the Gospel today, from Mark, Jesus cautions us not to abandon the commandment of God and replace it with human tradition.
I don’t know, but interestingly enough in his message to Congress on the establishment of what became the Veterans Administration, President Lincoln may well have had James in mind, in proposing a Government office “to care for him who has borne the burden of the battle, and for his widow and orphan.” Lincoln knew that in James’ words:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:
To care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep
oneself unstained by the world.
I leave you with James, and I hope you will read all five chapters. Be doers of the word. And finally, pray unceasingly. Use words if you have to.