August 15, 2010
This past week I spent some time thinking about something Susan said. At least that's what I call her, because I don't really know her name. She was the person Carol was having a conversation with – Carol, a friend of mine, who writes books and blogs about interesting things that happen in her life. Carol didn't know Susan either; the two of them were having a casual conversation one Friday night at the dinner party of a mutual friend.
As their small talk progressed, Susan eventually asked Carol what she did for a living. Which is always an interesting point in the conversation for Carol. Because see, Carol is a Presbyterian minister. And I can vouch for the fact that when this comes up in an exchange with a total stranger, something interesting is bound to happen.And it did for Carol. No sooner had Carol revealed her identity as a “woman of the cloth” that Susan's face went white with shock and she blurted out Oh my God! (which was an interesting choice of words). She told Carol how she never understood why anyone would want to go to church; until the previous year when her recently-divorced mother became very ill. She lived on the other side of the country, Susan did, and she was worried about how she would take care of her. As it turned out, she didn't need to worry. That's because her mother's church stepped right in. They brought her meals, they drove her to the doctor when she couldn't drive herself, they called Susan every now and then to give her updates. Carol listened to all of this and said yes, that that's what the good churches do.
And that's when Susan said that thing that I've been thinking a lot about this week: She said, I had no idea that's what the church did. You should really advertise that! (http://tribalchurch.org/?p=1713, visited 8.10.2010)
Carol wasn't asking this question rhetorically, by the way. And neither am I. I ask it in all seriousness, and I ask it of you, the members of First Presbyterian Church. Because the truth of the matter, whether we care to admit it or not, is that there are a lot of Susans out there; people who simply don't expect much from the community of faith these days. And they are not bad people or misinformed people. They sit next to us at PTO meetings; they stand behind us in the line at the grocery store. They are our Facebook friends; they are members of our own family. They are even people sitting in these pews, right now. They are not bad people; they are not the problem. The problem is us. Or, should I say, within us.And it's not a new problem; not by a long shot. It's precisely what James was writing about near the end of the first century in ancient Palestine. Trust me, this problem has been around for a great while. James, of course, was the younger brother of Jesus who as an adult led the church in Jerusalem in its early years. We're not entirely sure that the writer of the book that bears his name and the brother of Jesus are one in the same person; but the more important thing is that the writer of James had a reason for putting his thoughts into words. He wanted to address the problem.
It's a problem that came about quite naturally, really, some 60-70 years after Jesus' death. The letter was written to a collection of churches whose memory of Jesus was fading into the past with each passing year. At one time it was much more likely that someone in the congregation had a direct connection with Jesus or one of the disciples – maybe they saw him preach; maybe they heard a disciple give a sermon. And that was enough to remind them who they were. But as the years dragged on and generations came and went, the distance between them and the man they swore to follow became greater and greater. And so it was more of a challenge to put one's faith into practice. James' letter speaks to the heart of this community, dealing with what some call the “social ethics of Christianity” – in other words, how one makes the often challenging leap from “believing” to “doing.”Which is also part of the problem. As it turns out, James' letter has kind of gotten a bad rap over the years, primarily from something he says in the next chapter. Verse 17, specifically, where the writer pens – Faith without works is dead. Those five words, along with another five Cole read earlier: Be doers of the Word – those five words have elicited a firestorm of criticism over the two millennia since they were written.
That's because for some, this emphasis on “doing faith” seems to fly in the face of the message of grace that is woven throughout the scriptures. There is no question – the foundation of Christian belief is that we do nothing to earn God's love. And any suggestion to the contrary – or perceived suggestion – opens itself up for retribution. And that has been the plight of James over the years. The great Martin Luther, father of the Reformation, despised the book and went so far as to call the letter “an epistle of straw;” reportedly trying to have it removed from the New Testament! It's understandable, our passionate protection of grace and refuting any ideology that we can somehow “work our way into heaven.”Except that's not really what James was saying – not if we look closely enough. James is not denying grace; he is embracing it. And he's talking about how our lives change because of it. And not only that – James goes so far as to tell us why “doing the faith” is central in our lives and in the lives of the Susans around us. Listen:
we are like those who look at ourselves in a mirror;
for we look at ourselves and, on going away,
immediately forget what we look like.
Now I've been smitten by this image all week long – this mirror we gaze into, and who it is we see in there, only to forget it once we walk away. I've been thinking about how we are like this when we are “hearers” and not “doers;” when we claim Christ crucified and risen but don't really live like that's the case. When the Susans of the world, and perhaps even ourselves, come to expect less from the church and the Christian faith than what we believe we are called to be.
The mirror. Let me ask you something, and I know it's kind of personal: but what do you see when you look in the mirror in the morning? Better yet, who do you see? Do you see graying hair, acne, stubble on your face, wrinkles? Do you see someone worn from the journey; someone who struggles to jump head-first into the day that awaits? Do you ever sit there and just look at yourself in the mirror, longer than the time it takes to put on some makeup, brush your hair, drag a razor across your chin?Do you ever take the time to look deeper; to look beyond the image of yourself to the image of what's really there? Because that is the image that James says we need to see. It is the child of God within each one of us; living, breathing, alive. It is at the core of our very identity; it's what defines everything about our life. It is in us and it is real. It tells us who we are and whose we are. It's the most important identity we can carry with us as we step away from that mirror and walk head-first into the world. And according to James, it's the very thing we keep on forgetting.
At the Bob Chilton Bible study this past week we were looking at these verses from James, talking about how easily we forget this image we see in the mirror; and Shasta said it reminded her of a movie called Memento. I've seen it; it's a great flick. There's this guy, and he's had a trauma in his life where he can't form any new memories – literally. He forgets everything minutes after it happens. People he comes into contact with, events that take place – all of it, vanishing from his existence as if they never happened. He knows this, so what he does is he takes polaroid snapshots of important things, things he wants to remember later; and he jots notes on the white part underneath with a Sharpie. He tapes these polaroids all over the wall of his room, hundreds of them, in an elaborate system so he has a point of reference for his daily living. So in his own way, he can remember.That's the kind of thing James is getting at – he is calling us to never forget that child of God we see in the mirror, like snapshots and notes written on them to remind us. And the thing is, it is not just for our benefit that we remember who we are. It is also for the benefit of the world, a world that needs us to remember; a world trying so hard to see God and know God in and around them; a world that desperately needs the children of God to be “doers” and not just “hearers,” a world that has come to expect so much less from us.
If there ever was one who “did their faith “to the nth degree, it was Mother Teresa and her work with the dying on the streets of Calcutta, India. There is a quote that is attributed to her. And it's a wonderful way to understand why it's so important for you and me to remember who it is we see in the mirror as we step out into the world. Listen:
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
See, I have to think that if we all followed Mother Teresa's advice, if we heeded James' message and remembered who we see in that mirror, then maybe the Susans of the world wouldn't be so surprised by us! Maybe they would already known what “the good churches” do, and what the good followers of Christ do – serve and love all, give hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak, food for the hungry and water for the thirsty. And maybe, just maybe, they would understand what it means to be a child of God.
Be doers of the word. Remember who you see in the mirror. Look past the wrinkles and imperfections; gaze deeper than the screw-ups and hang-ups. Soak in with your soul the beauty of the child of God within. And then let that child come forth in everything you do; ready to change the world, one memory at a time. Thanks be to God. AMEN.