Friday, September 25, 2015

The Path of Least Resistance: Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:8

This past Sunday I was very sick and missed church. I'm finally mostly back to normal (I even ran this morning for the first time in a week and a half) and realized I never posted my sermon. I didn't make it to church, but one of my elders was gracious enough to read the sermon for me. There is no recording today, but the manuscript is below.

The lectionary passages used for Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015 were Psalm 1 and James 3:13-4:8.

I’d like to begin this morning with a few quotes from the great reformer Martin Luther regarding the book of James.
“Therefore St James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”[1]
“The epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the Papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest…Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove, as the priest in Kalenberg did.”[2]
“We should throw the epistle of James out of this school [i.e. Wittenburg], for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did.”[3]
Martin Luther changed the church forever. He was not a man to mince words – he quite plainly spoke exactly what was on his mind – for better or for worse. And in case you missed it. . . Luther wasn’t a fan of the book of James.
To be fair, he was reacting to some serious shenanigans that were happening in the church at the time. At that time, the church had very little to do with faith or grace or love. For the pre-reformation church, Christianity was all about doing the right things, saying the right things, paying the right dues to get into heaven. So when he read passages like the one I just read, all he saw was a passage about using our own power to resist sin and he’d had enough of that. He wanted the church to remember that God is gracious and loving and that Christian life isn’t just about following a set of rules. We can’t behave our way into heaven.
Luther vastly preferred the writings of the Apostle Paul over the epistle of James. We just spent all summer with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. And you’ll see that not even Paul lets us off the hook with bad behavior as long as we’re faithful. We read last week that James doesn’t let us off the hook with just good behavior and no faith. Faith and action go hand in hand. There’s a pendulum that can start swinging here if we’re not careful. It hits faith on one end and works on the other. But the truth is that we can’t separate the two. They are too intricately tied together. They are both required. Both the way we live and the way we believe are part of who we are. We are indeed saved by the grace of God and not by our own actions, but we can’t trust claims of faith that aren’t backed up by actions of grace and love. We’re like the egg in the children’s sermon. Once you start separating all of our pieces, we’re not really a whole egg anymore. We’re a totally different ingredient.
Over the years, I’ve taught myself how to cook and with the exception of an unfortunate incident involving salmon chili about ten years ago, I’ve gotten pretty decent at it. But baking is my real love. It’s what I’m good at. And we’re not talking cookies here. I like the complicated stuff like fancy breads and meringue based cakes that you have to mix just right. Here’s the thing. . . when the recipe calls for an egg. . . you have to use an egg. You can’t use just the white or just the yolk. Baking is something you have to be very thoughtful and purposeful about. You can’t just toss in whatever looks right like you can in cooking. There are some recipes that call for just the white or just the yolk, but not many. Most recipes that use egg call for the whole egg. And when your recipe calls for a whole egg, you’d better get the whole egg in there. You’re missing something if you leave out part of the egg.
Luther was reminding the church that they needed the yolk too, not just the white of the egg. But in doing so, he seemed to forget that this recipe calls for whole egg. This is where my analogy starts to fall apart because if we start thinking about the Bible itself as a recipe book, we’re falling into the same trap that Luther was trying to pull the church out of. My point is that we can’t get behave our way into heaven, and we can’t get in with empty faith that has no action connected to it. But when the two partner together, mighty things happen. Sin gets pushed out. Evil cowers and hides. We become who we were meant to be. Fully. The whole egg.
Somehow it seems that it’s easier to live at one end of this spectrum or the other. We want to bake with the whites or the yolk, but not the whole egg. We want to cling to these passages like Psalm 1 and pretty much the whole book of James and worry about if we’re submitting enough, acting holy enough, behaving enough, doing the right things enough or we want to say, “My actions don’t matter, it’s all about how much faith I have.” But we can’t have it one way or the other. We’re saved by grace, not our actions, but the truly faithful look and act differently.
Sometimes we get so caught up in worrying about who is following the rules and telling them all this about how sin will get them in trouble that we forget we’re all in this together. OR we get so caught up in the way we’re acting that we convince ourselves that God could never possibly be gracious enough to save someone like us or that we are buying or earning our way into heaven. Neither is a helpful path to go down. Neither one of them are all they’re cracked up to be. But we aren’t told about sin in the scripture so we can rush out and tell everyone that they’re bad eggs – we’re told about it so we can grow in our own understanding and faith. We aren’t told about it as a guilt trip, but as a mirror in which we can see how our faith is meant to look.
In James, the Greek word translated “devil” in this passage also means “adversary.” It’s not actually a proper name. There are some places in the bible that we can argue the word is being used as a name, but this isn’t one of them. James doesn’t mean to make the adversary, the devil, a character here, like king of hell devil with a pitchfork, but he’s talking about evil in general. He means the adversary that stands in the way of our living out the faith – sin. I don’t point that out just to stir the pot, but to note that it’s ironic that the adversary standing in the way for many of us – or really for all of us at some time or another – is that of judging others actions or even of judging our own actions to the point of ignoring matters of spirit and faith – taking this passage too far in an unhealthy direction.
For some, the path of least resistance is to put all their stock in the idea that they’ll never be able to change or that change is too hard. For others the path of least resistance is keeping a tally of behavior so as to avoid dealing with the deeper issues of the heart that God wishes to heal. Either way, we’re avoiding half of this egg. You could say we’re a bit half-baked with this sort of thinking.
And taking the path that seems easier now is not the easier way to go in the long run. It only delays the inevitable day when God will turn the heat up. Psalm 1 says that the easier path – the way of the wicked it’s called – leads to destruction in the long run. But the path that requires a change of heart and a turn to genuine faith in the grace that saves us. . . the path that means we have to consider what our actions say about our hearts. . . that path leads us ultimately to abundant life with God.
C. S. Lewis says:
Teachers will tell you that the laziest boy in the class is the one who works the hardest in the end. They mean this. If you give two boys, say, a proposition in geometry to do, the one who is prepared to take trouble will try to understand it. The lazy boy will learn it by heart because, for the moment, that needs less effort. But six months later, when they are preparing for the exam, that lazy boy is doing hours and hours of miserable drudgery over things the other boy understands, and positively enjoys, in a few minutes. Laziness means more work in the long run.”
            Lewis tells us that the path of least resistance leads to drama and hardship later on. But the one that seems more difficult in the moment is the one that will prepare you to rise to the occasion later on.
It’s not easy being a whole egg. But when you take the brownies out of the oven having used only the yolk, they are not going to be what you expected. When you take the faith out of the works, they are just empty deeds that have no meaning and the results will be disappointing. When you take the action out of the faith, well. . . it wasn’t very good faith to begin with and it’s going to come back to bite you in the end. The good news is that in the end, God is gracious. God shows favor to the humble. God watches over the paths of the righteous people, the humble people – even when they veer off a little – and makes them fruitful.
             Perhaps the best thing we can do is to simply remember that it takes a whole egg. Luther was right. We are saved by grace – praise Jesus. But James was also right – the way we live out that faith says an awful great deal about the state of our heart from which we place our faith in that grace. And while that can be hard to deal with – it’s not pretty to deal with our sin and our baggage – in the long run, it’s like the boy who studies hard all school year and breezes through the finals because he’s taken the harder path in the short term.
            Friends, remember this. . . faith is given to us by the Grace of God. That faith is evident through our actions. The actions and faith are so a part of one another we can’t separate them. The things we do matter. But they don’t save us. God’s grace is what saves us but claims of faith that aren’t lived out are hollow. So submit to God. . . not just in what you do but in who you are and in what’s in your heart. Submit everything, mind, body, soul, action, heart to God. God doesn’t ask for one piece. God asks for our whole being. 

[1] Luther’s Works 35, 362
[2] Luther’s Works 34, 317
[3] Luther’s Works 54, 424

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