Every good and perfect gift is from above

Saturday

James 1:17-27

File:Chartres JBU09.JPG17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

This seems like an awkward translation to me. The verse I remember is from the old RSV is “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above,” and the NIV has simply “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” There are two words being used for gift and the first can mean either the act of giving or the gift itself (thus the NRSV translation above), but the adjective is ‘good’ and I am reluctant to restrict that to ‘generous’. “good giving” isn’t very poetic, but fits the point is that all that comes from God is both good and gift.

Our appointed reading for Sunday picks up in the middle of a thought. The author of James has begun by talking about rejoicing in trials and declared No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God.” God doesn’t send evil; what comes from God is good and gift.

Evil, trial, temptation, all has its roots in us not in God. God is the author of good; we are the authors of what is not.

One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

God is not like the gods. The gods are fickle, jealous, impulsive, willing to cast thunderbolts and storms, willing to throw down as easily as they raise up. God is not so. God is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

People outside the tradition – and sometimes those within – read the Old Testament (and the book of Revelation) and see a god of thunderbolts, sanctioning war, capital punishment and terrors. Perhaps this is what comes naturally to us as frail creatures beset by forces beyond our control. Hurricanes and tragedies become, in our minds, “acts of God.” But it is a false reading of the record. The plagues that come upon Egypt are the consequences of a society founded on injustice and slavery. Each natural crisis is an opportunity to repent, to change their ways. It is not a story about the vindictiveness of God; it is a story of our persistence in sin and its terrible price. And it is a story of a God determined to bring justice to the world.

God is a giver of good and perfect gifts. The scripture does not shrink back from telling horrifying stories – but they are stories about our warring passions, our cruelty, our callousness, our brokenness. In the face of the corruption of the world God remains perfect goodness.

So we are not, says James, to attribute our trials to God but to ourselves and to our place within a fallen human community. What we are to do is remember that “he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” We are to be “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” We are to “look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act.” We are, in other words, to live in and from the perfect goodness and generosity of God.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChartres_JBU09.JPG
By Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What comes from within

Watching for the Morning of August 30, 2015

Year B

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

File:Yemenite boy washing hands, December 5, 1949.jpgThe voice of Moses in the reading from Deuteronomy on Sunday will call us to “give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe.” But Deuteronomy calls us to more than an outward observance; it calls us into the spirit of God’s instructions and commands. It celebrates the wisdom and justice of God’s law. And it understands that the life of the community depends on observing this law, of living within God’s will for justice and mercy.

The psalmist joins that song, describing those who are welcome in God’s holy house not in terms of ritual purity, but in language of fidelity to neighbor: those who speak truth, do justice, and show mercy to the poor.

James, too, sings of the life lived in accordance with God’s word: “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.”

It is so easy for religion to slide into a narrow legalism, by which we are able to imagine ourselves faithful without ever actually living by the Spirit of God: the spirit of compassion, generosity, kindness, justice, truth, courage. Jesus is attacked because some of his followers haven’t observed the ritual washing of hands before eating. This is not a real hand washing related to concerns about germs, but a ritual pouring of water over the hands with an accompanying prayer. It is like someone eating without saying grace. Is the ritual blessing of a meal a measure of the true Christian or are we summoned to live within the spirit of thanksgiving that receives all things as gift from God? Outward forms have their importance in teaching and sustaining the inner life – but the point is the inner life. And by inner life it is important that we recognize we are speaking not only of the individual, but of the spirit that abides in the community. One generous person is good. A community of generosity is the intent of God.

The question what is truly means to be “clean” – to be acceptable before God, to be worthy to enter God’s presence – is deeply important. And Jesus will not let us narrow the definition to ritual practice. He insists that we recognize the will of God for a community that honors God in all things – from the food we eat to the food we share from hearts that are at least seeking to be loving and true.

The Prayer August 30, 2015

Father of lights,
with whom there is no variation or shadow of change:
be our lamp in the darkness
and our eternal rock,
that we may worship you rightly
with lives of compassion and truth;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 30, 2015

First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
“What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” – Deuteronomy is presented as a sermon of Moses to the people of Israel at the end of the forty years in the wilderness in which the community is urged to observe God’s wise and just laws.

Psalmody: Psalm 15
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?”
– The poet asks who is worthy to enter the holy precinct of the temple – and answers it not in terms of ritual purity, but the just and faithful treatment of others.

Second Reading: James 1:17-27
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
– The author reminds the community that God calls for our inner and outward lives to be aligned and in harmony with the message we have hear from God.

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” – The religious leaders challenge Jesus because some of his followers didn’t observe the ritual washing before eating. It prompts his teaching on purity – not as on outward observance, but the words and deeds that flow from the heart.

 

Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Yemenite_boy_washing_hands,_December_5,_1949.jpg

Around a single table

Lutheran Altar

Altar at the Castle Church in Torgau

Sunday Evening

Mark 4:35-41

38 They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

I don’t know whether it was the mood of the whole worshipping assembly today or just mine, but the tragedy in South Carolina seemed to hang over worship. It rattled around in the sermon about Jesus stilling the storm. Perhaps I should have spoken directly about the violence that invaded Emanuel Church where nine laid down their lives – or had them stolen away – but I was not ready.   Nevertheless, it was there when we talked about the power of God’s word that brought order, beauty and goodness out of the chaos of the primeval waters – a word that Jesus had authority to speak. It was there when I talked about the storm at sea through which God obstructed Jonah’s flight from God’s command to bring God’s word to the hated Ninevites. Jonah would rather perish than carry to Assyria a message that might save Israel’s enemy. It’s a comical story with a profound message – a message Jesus takes up when he declares:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)

We don’t really want to hear that God loves everyone. And, like Jonah, there is a part of us that runs from that assignment. Who wants to bear witness to skinheads and white supremacists? Who wants to challenge bigoted and prejudicial speech? The safety of our like-minded churches is much to be preferred. Or, at least, what we thought was safety.

All hate is linked. We need to get this through our heads and hearts and souls. All hate is linked. We cannot disseminate vitriolic emails about Muslims, Obama, Democrats or Republicans, or climate change supporters or deniers, without adding to the level of hate and intolerance in the country. We cannot oppose the building of a mosque without adding to the desecration of all religious traditions. We may enjoy the snarky remarks, exaggerations and falsehoods on the news channel of our choice, but we are adding to the spiritual pollution of our time.

All hate is linked. And it is linked over time. We are not far in time from lynching as a public festival, with children in their Sunday best watching a body in flames. We are not far in time from segregated schools and segregated buses and segregated workforces. We are not far in time when persons of color died because a white hospital would not treat them. We are not far in time when a white woman’s word sealed the fate of a black man, any black man. We are not far in time when white sheriffs picked up black men for ‘vagrancy’ and ‘hired’ them out to work in the orange groves. We are not far in time when a black child with a toy gun is shot on sight.

All hate is linked. And it is linked over time. We have hated “Commies”. We have hated the Japanese before them. Interestingly, we tended to hate Nazi’s rather than Germans, but made no such distinction about imperialist Japan. We have hated the native peoples who occupied this land. We have hated the Irish when they first came to this land and, at various times, Italians and Jews and most other migrant groups in their time. We have allowed our hates to morph and shift rather than choose the path that Jesus’ proposed – well, actually, commanded.

The sin lies in all of us. And repentance doesn’t mean feeling guilt. It means changing our allegiance, changing our path, changing our loyalty from self-interest to the well being of our neighbor. It means changing from the spirit of our age to the Spirit of God. It means truth telling about our story and listening with care to the stories others tell. It means restraining our greed and considering well the welfare of the whole community. It means restraining our speech. As St. James records:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (1:26)

It means taking to heart what James declares when he says that the tongue is

a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (3:8-12)

All hate is linked. But the eternal source of life, who commanded the sea to be still and brought forth the world of beauty and goodness, has come among us in this Nazarene. And he gathers us still, week after week, around a single table to remind us of his promise to gather all nations into the banquet of perfect peace. And he has made us his witnesses that our lost humanity can be restored.