The realm we inhabit


James 2:1-17

File:Tandır bread.jpg14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

I liked James when I was young. It was easy to understand. It was concrete and specific. It appealed to my youthful idealism.

A spiritual crisis in college took me into the Psalms; they gave voice to the cries of the heart.

In seminary, I did a thesis on Lamentations. I was obsessed then with the questions about God and suffering, about the trauma of crushed faith.

Later I thrived on the powerful poetic language of the prophets. Perhaps it was a natural development from the passionate and intense poetry of Lamentations.

Still later I became enthralled at the genius of the Gospel writers.

James seems almost a little pedantic compared to the soaring heights of the prophets or the Gospels – or to the profound depths of Lamentations. But here he is, the slap upside the head that calls us back to earth. All the brilliance of scripture doesn’t take away the demand to live the will of God. There is no faith without works. There is no allegiance to God that does not manifest itself in solidarity with neighbor.

The question is whether James is preaching to the choir. Is this familiar rhetoric that gets the congregation riled up and shouting “Amen!” or is this an arrow through the heart of a congregation that has lost its soul? Was James writing to churches that did not provide for the least in their midst, or was he just reinforcing that profound reality they all knew – the followers of Jesus formed a household that lived the mercy and compassion that had found them in Christ? Could James have imagined a church that was about a set of religious ideas and not a way of life? Could he have imagined personal faith that was not a shared life?

I don’t think so.

The moral exhortations of James are, in fact, rather obvious. But sometimes we need the obvious to remind us of the realm we inhabit. Sometimes the community needs to revel a bit in what it already knows: Faith is not an idea; it is a way of life, a discipleship, an allegiance to the God who takes widows and orphans under his protection – the God who feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, and comes to the aid of the poor and oppressed – the God who gathers the outcasts and heals the blind and the lame – the God who lifts away our unpayable debt. To put our trust in him, to claim allegiance to him, is to live his life. Everybody knows this, but still the preacher likes to call out every now and then, “Let the congregation say ‘Amen!’”


Image: By jeffreyw (Mmm…pita bread  Uploaded by Fæ) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Scandal and praise

Watching for the Morning of September 6, 2015

Year B

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

File:Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib - Jesus and the Canaanite Woman - Walters W59243A - Full Page.jpgThey have no right to the gifts of God. They are not deserving. They are not God’s people. And when the woman asks for healing, Jesus speaks what everyone is thinking: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But the woman will not be dissuaded: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

It is so hard for us to understand the grace of God, so difficult to accept the magnitude of God’s mercy. Jesus has come to be the savior of the world – the whole world, not just us and people like us, not just believers, not just Christians, not just the baptized or the born again or the born again and really living it. The world. People in burkas and tattoos and unwashed jeans and unwashed lives. He sends rain on the just and the unjust(righteous and unrighteous). “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’”

And Jesus is touching people, sick people, “unclean” people.

It is a visible illustration of the previous text where Jesus says that what makes a person unclean isn’t anything on the outside, but what comes from within: the way we treat others.

So the disciples might cheer when they hear Jesus speak harshly to the Gentile woman. But they do not understand the character of God – nor the scriptures like Sunday’s psalm that sings of God’s care of the vulnerable and poor, or the prophet who rejoices in God’s deliverance of exiles, or, for that matter, the reading from James that excoriates the Christian community for treating some people (elite members of society, people with money) differently than the peasant poor.

But the woman knows. And the man who can neither speak nor hear but feels Jesus’ hands upon him, he knows. And they join the poet’s song of praise.

And maybe, when we hear about Jesus opening ears, we can feel his hands opening ours.

The Prayer for September 6, 2015

Father of all,
whose ears are open to the cries of every people:
drive out every power of evil,
and open every ear to hear and abide in your Word of life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 6, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 35:3-7a (appointed: 4-7a)
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” – The prophet announces God’s impending deliverance of the nation from their exile in Babylon and their joyful journey home.

Psalmody: Psalm 146
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”
– The poet praises the LORD, a God who comes to the aid of those in need.

Second Reading: James 2:1-17
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
– The author challenges the community not to show favoritism, warning them that to break any part of the law is to be accountable for all of it.

Gospel: Mark 7:24-37
“A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” – Following his teaching about what does and doesn’t render a person “unclean”, Jesus travels in foreign territory and heals two who are “unclean”, outside the covenant of Israel: the daughter of a Syrophoenician and a man from the Gentile region of the Decapolis.


Jesus and the Canaanite woman, folio from Walters manuscript W.592  Credit: Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons