Thursday, September 6, 2012

Keep James in Mind

Scripture for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost includes Song of Solomon 2:8-13; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

As today’s leaflet reports, I aim to give not a sermon, but a homily—which, customarily, is shorter than a sermon. Traditionally, a homily attempts to be practical and spiritually illuminating, while a sermon by tradition gives an exposition of religious doctrine. (Put it that way, and I should prefer to give a homily rather than a sermon every time I preach.) Homiletics is the academic discipline that teaches seminarians how to preach. (Somehow, I got through seminary without taking a homiletics course—something I’ve never admitted to Thomas Mikelson, who taught homiletics at Harvard Divinity School.) The funny word “homiletical” sounds like “omelette”, which suggests that if it takes three eggs to create a sermon, a homily requires just one. A single text, a single point.

I will choose the Letter of James, because he writes about the importance of doing, not just hearing, the Word of God. His letter pokes a very sharp point into the inflated self-importance of people who claim they believe earnestly but fail to show it by their actions. He hits this nail firmly on its head in this passage:

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder… For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (2:18-19, 26)

Here is the flip side to that famous story of two sisters, contemplative Mary and activist Martha, in which Jesus appears to value them both but favors listening Mary over bustling Martha.

James comes down on the side of results. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and 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? So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:14-17)

That was the outlook of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative, a mouthful to say and much about filling empty stomachs. With community service their common denominator, this team of allies filled a vacuum created when the Community Action food pantry lost its funding. On the order of 600 families are now finding assistance and respectful welcome at the Friendship Center on Eagle Street.

I recall a vestry meeting just before summer started. Several members said, “Wouldn’t it be great if St. John’s had a vegetable garden and the produce went to the Friendship Center?” Three of those members, with one spouse and one dog, tilled the northwest corner of the rectory yard and planted chard, squash, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, cabbage, broccoli— just as the fig tree put forth its figs in the Song of Solomon, this garden has produced plentifully!

And I’m reasonably confident that these volunteers would tell you they have been blessed in their doing.

What I notice about James’s discourse (let’s call it a homily) is how he defines religion. It isn’t defined by saying things, or by believing in a certain way, or by worshiping in one way or another, but by the kind of doing that cares for people and contributes to the integrity of the doer, the worker.

Labor Day gets us reflecting on work, reflecting on ourselves as workers, and considering what it means to be unemployed, under-employed, and formerly-employed. Later in this service, as we present objects which symbolize our work, we hope to hear results of such reflecting. Which is why I am serving up a one-egg omelette, not the usual three.

Keep James in mind. Work can be downright holy, work that cares for people, work done with care for the people involved, work that contributes to the integrity of the worker by (to paraphrase Jesus in today’s Gospel) stimulating the human heart to intend what is good, and (to sum up James) achieve it.