Sermon for September 10, 2003

Jane Strohl

James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37
Matthew 6: 25-34

My daughter’s homework this year includes something her teacher calls a “Night Write.” There is a new topic everyday for the students to consider. Recently she was asked to decide which would be preferable—being poor and beautiful or rich and ugly—and then write about the thinking behind her choice. Well, there it is, the sweet mystery of life in a nutshell—it’s all about looks and money. Just what a pre-adolescent girl doesn’t need to contemplate. I was horrified by this exercise in values clarification.

It got worse. Lucy decided to go with poor and beautiful, because, she opined, some rich guy would probably marry you. I told my daughter that I did not think it wise to look at marriage as a solution to any problem, financial or otherwise. And she backtracked, “Well, of course if I were ugly and rich, I could afford a total makeover like on TV.”

“For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’ or ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Well… yes. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” Well… define faith. “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.” Luther, his dismissal of James as an epistle of straw notwithstanding, said the same.

Those of you who have had me in class know that one of my favorite Luther writings is the postil he preached on the Matthean version of today’s Gospel. For Luther, the Syro-Phoenician woman was the quintessential Lutheran saint. She hears a good word about Jesus. She believes what she has heard, believes that he has the power and the heart to help her. And even when the world around her would seem to give that word the lie, when our Lord Jesus makes the kind of invidious distinctions that James denounces, she perseveres in her faith. The woman is undeterred by her experience of God’s hiddenness, unphased by the alienating externals of her situation. She holds to the promise she has heard and that faith is enough to save her. This, proclaims Luther, is what every Christian’s discipleship is all about.

But note how the act of faith and the good work of love can hardly be distinguished one from the other. “She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” And if her girl was not to be counted among the children with a rightful claim to being fed, then she would humble herself to forage like a dog among their leavings for her daughter’s sake.

In 1829 Nathanael, the son of the great German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, fell ill and died in a matter of days. The grief-stricken father preached at his graveside and offered the following counsel to his hearers:

But with thanks it is always good that some gift be joined in return; and so, all of you, accept as a remembrance of this moment, so painfully significant for me, a well-meant gift of Christian admonition. My wife and I have both loved this child tenderly and with all our hearts, and what is more, amiability and gentleness are the ruling tone of our household. And yet, here and there, there steals through our memories of our life with this beloved child a soft tone of reproach. And so I believe that perhaps no one passes on, concerning whom those who lived most closely with him are completely satisfied when they examine themselves before God—even if the allotment of life has been as short as this one. Therefore let us all truly love one another as persons who could soon—alas, how soon!—be snatched away. I say this to you children; and you may believe me that this advice, if you follow it, will tarnish no innocent joys for you; rather it will surely protect you from many errors, even though they may be small. I say this to you parents; for even if you do not share my experience, you will enjoy even more unspoiled the fruits of this word. I say it with my sincerest thanks to you teachers; for even if you have to do with young people in numbers too great to allow you to develop a special relation with each individual, yet all the more must those things which you do to keep order and good discipline be infused with the right spirit of holy Christian love. Ah yes, let us all love one another as persons who could soon be separated!

We have begun a new school year, full of promise and commitment. We exhort one another to be cheerful and energetic, especially in these days, when many in the church are watching to see how PLTS will fare in the wake of Tim’s death. Some would have us down the tubes, with a sucking sound heard all the way to Chicago. Of course, we have our work cut out for us. Still, part of that work is grief.

Tim is dead, and some days I come here and feel only the emptiness, my heart beating for what will never be again. I am crushed by the realization that we have been so roughly torn apart. It’s a lonely place, but I have only to look around this gathering to know that I am not alone there. Oh my brothers and sisters, tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the fall of the World Trade Center. My God, my God, how quickly we can be rent asunder. Drawn by wealth and power, we can no longer dismiss the vulnerable, those marked by loss, to sit at our feet. “Let us truly love one another as persons who could soon—alas, how soon!—be snatched away.”

James is fierce in his admonition, “So, faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” You can do better. Faith, if it has no works, isn’t dead faith ; it’s not faith at all. So what’s his point? Ante up with some works of love, give God something to work with? Who is this God as cosmic nag, the mom who makes you weep and rebel, the God Luther couldn’t be torn away from soon enough? You can do better. Yes, by the mercy and power of God in Christ, we can. The faith kindled in our hearts propels us into the tides of love. They will carry us through rocks of grief and loss, and we will ride them to shores of unparalleled grace. “Let us truly love one another as persons who could soon—alas, how soon!—be snatched away.” For as James tells us, “Every 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. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”