Getting to Know the Epistle of James

Sermon for Sunday, September 6, 2015
15th Sunday after Pentecost
James 2:1-17
Mark 78:24-37

Because I want to be sure to speak to two of our readings, I’m going to preach two sermons this morning, the first one short, the second one shorter.

First, I want to say something about the book of James.  To me, James is like one of those people on the other side of the room at a cocktail party that I don’t know very well and whom I’m not sure I want to get to know.  I’ve got my circle of friends whom I know and love and would gladly spend the whole evening with.  I have friends whom I know a little less well, but whom I nonetheless enjoy.  There are those whom I don’t know, but whom I’m drawn to know.  And then there’s James.

Maybe it’s the way James doesn’t fit in with the New Testament crowd.  To continue the cocktail party metaphor…  Imagine all the epistles gathered in one big room.  Over there is the Pauline corpus: the “undisputed” epistles undeniably written by Paul, and the “disputed” ones probably written by somebody else. There, talking together in that corner, are the so-called “pastoral epistles:”  1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus.   In the other corner are the so-called “epistles general,” Peter, James, John and Jude and Hebrews.  Even though all they seem to talk about is love, I still enjoy talking with the three Johns (1, 2 & 3 John).  Even though I don’t much like 2 Peter, I can still talk to him because I really like his partner, 1 Peter.  Hebrews is quirky but, boy, does he know his Old Testament, so I always enjoying talking with him.  Jude is a quiet introvert who doesn’t take up much space, and I don’t know him well.  But James…

James sticks out like a sore thumb.  Unlike the others, James has no theology that I find interesting, like Paul telling how we are saved, not by works, but by faith; or like Hebrews interpreting Jesus through the lens of Hebrew ritual.  Unlike the others, James has no “back story” or drama, like conflict in the community in 1 Corinthians, or false teachers and “antichrists” in 1 John.  James has no soaring words of hope or confident expressions of faith like Romans and Philippians.   James doesn’t even seem to have and “I suffered and am the better for it” story like 1 Peter or 2 Corinthians.  James is barely even Christian – Jesus is mentioned only once.  There is almost nothing I find compelling about James, so I do my best to keep my distance.

But… over the years I’ve come to learn about those neighbors across the room at the cocktail party that if I can set aside my prejudices, and if I can approach them with the right attitude and ask some good questions, usually I can find something to like about them.  Like, “Wow, their son sure sounds fascinating and has a cool job.”  Or, “They sure do take interesting vacations.”  Or, “Boy, do they know their beers! “  And if I can find a few points of connection, I can at least make conversation with them.  And if I can make conversation with them, I often begin to like them.

Such is the case for me with James.  Our relationship is still a little awkward – it’s hard for me to see past my first impression of James as bland, boring and barely Christian – but I’ve found a few points of connection.

For example, I’ve come to appreciate that James stands in a long and distinguished line of what is known as “wisdom literature,” which tend to be collections of short, pithy sayings about, for example, diligence in work, or the benefits of holding ones tongue, or the virtues of patience.  And I’ve also come to respect James’ commitment to the poor.  As in today’s reading James tells his listeners:

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, even though on the surface there isn’t much about James that attracts me, once I go across the room and introduce myself and start asking questions and begin conversation, I realize that James actually has something to offer.  And so I invite you, too, if you don’t know James well, to get to know him.  You might enjoy having a new friend in the New Testament canon.

Here’s the second sermon, this one very brief.  In this morning’s gospel lesson, I’m probably not the only one troubled by Jesus’ initial treatment of the Syrophoenician woman.  I mean, doesn’t Jesus have compassion for people and heal them instantly, whenever they ask?  Why would he rebuff this woman who was seeking healing for her daughter?

Often, the key to understanding one book in the Scriptures is found in another book.  The Bible is like a big house, filled with many rooms.  To unlock the door of one room, it is often necessary to go into another to find the key.  To help me better understand Jesus’ response to the woman in this passage from Mark, I go to the room that is gospel of John, to the passage in chapter 6 that says:  “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father.”

The woman, then, did not come to Jesus of her own accord; God brought her to Jesus.  Maybe God drew the woman to Jesus in order to remind future generations that Christ is not just for people like us, but also for those different from us.  Or maybe God wanted to preserve for us this woman’s example of prayer – bowing down and begging is a perfectly normal way to pray.  Or maybe, God drew this woman to Jesus in order to help this woman – and also us – claim our voice in prayer, that we already know how to pray, if we let ourselves.

So while this morning’s Gospel lesson is troubling because of Jesus’ initial treatment of the woman, I don’t think Jesus rebuffed her simply to be mean.  The Father had drawn this woman to Jesus.  And Jesus had compassion on her, and hoped to teach her – as he hopes to teach us, if we let him – about ourselves, about love, about our capacity for prayer, and about how much God loves us and will do for us, if we let Him.

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