15 Pentecost B—9/6/15
Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37
Genesis 1:1-25; Romans :18-23; John 1:1-14
Pr. Scott Kramer
Over the past couple of Sundays we have heard Jesus teach that religion, tradition, and ritual are “worthless”…unless they lead us to a deeper understanding of God’s love and a deeper practice of God’s love for all people!
Today we begin the Season of Creation, which congregations of many denominations around the world observe this year—and every year–during the month of September. This season reflects a growing awareness among disciples of Jesus that God’s all-inclusive love is not only for all people; it is for the whole creation!
Our readings for this Sunday once again point to God’s love as both the source of our being and our reason for being. But, it is easy to become distracted from this God-given purpose, as our second reading teaches: You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality [to the rich] you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
James writes at length about the ways religious people in their treatment of poor people dodge the commandment to love one another. 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?
By itself, this passage could be interpreted as a call to charity. But today’s first reading gives us a glimpse into what Christian faith looks like when it is more mature and fully developed: a life committed not to charity but to justice for those who are without power and wealth.
Charity is for spiritual beginners. If you are a spiritual beginner charity is a great place to start! But charity by itself can become a cheap substitute for love. Charity by itself, in truth, is a favorite tool of the rich and powerful because although it makes a great public impression it does not require any change of heart, no transformation of political and economic systems. Charity does not require spiritual transformation. Justice, on the other hand, does—and our readings for today are full of the language of justice!
Isaiah speaks of hope for the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the mute. The psalmist speaks of “justice to those who are oppressed.” James condemns the sin of practicing favoritism for the rich. Our stories from Mark highlight Jesus’ love and compassion for foreigners: a woman whose daughter is “possessed” by some serious illness, and a deaf man with a speech impediment. These people were way down the food chain of the societies in which they lived. Jesus is not practicing charity toward them. He is restoring dignity and power to those on the edge of society. He is restoring right relationships. This is the Christian work of justice!
But justice is more than restoring human relationships. In this Season of Creation we remember that justice extends to the whole creation. The Earth, as the Book of Genesis reminds us, was created good. It is not humanity’s latrine. It is not our personal Costco, from which we take whatever we want as long as we have enough money. The Earth is our home, and a fragile one at that. Without planet Earth we would not be homeless; we would not exist!
The basic human sin, as our Creation stories teach, is embracing the illusion of independence–we imagine that we are self-sufficient. Spiritual maturity, in contrast, leads us to see the connections among all people. What’s more, when we see with spiritual eyes we see more clearly the connections between humanity and the whole creation. We accept responsibility for those among us who have less power and privilege. We accept responsibility for the care and protection of God’s creation.
People both within the church and outside the church often get the idea that we do good works—such as charity–to gain favor with God, or as a way of feeling good about ourselves. But our scriptures reveal that there is a deeper reason to practice love for all people and all creation.
In his letter describing the Christian work of compassion and justice, James includes this stern and somewhat ominous statement: For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What sounds to us like the threat of God’s judgment really may just be a comment on the way the world works.
For example, when we fail to practice mercy, justice and compassion toward all people, the inevitable consequence—as history shows–is revolution. Poor and oppressed people eventually rise up and claim the dignity and power that have been denied them by unjust societies. Likewise, when we fail to practice mercy, justice and compassion toward the Earth, the inevitable consequence is the collapse of the natural world. It’s as if our scripture writers are saying, “If you can’t practice justice for the sake of love, maybe you can do it at least for the sake of self-interest!”
But Christian discipleship is not about self-interest; it’s all about love! The love of Christ is not some sentimental, cozy, private relationship. It is a deep and mature understanding of our interdependence with all God’s people, and all creation. The love of Christ leads us in all we do—from the things we buy to the policies we support to the leaders we choose–to live lives dedicated…to justice!