Pulling ‘little Jimmy’ out of the fire: on faith, works, and the unsafe goodness of God
David R. Weiss – Pilgrim Lutheran Church (St. Paul, MN) – September 2, 2018
Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps 15; James 2: 1-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
At Pilgrim, each week the preacher selects a short contemporary quote that highlights a theme in their sermon. This was my bulletin quote: “If Jesus did in fact say that [“The poor you always have with you” John 12:8], it is a divine black joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor.” ~Kurt Vonnegut, “Palm Sunday Sermon” in Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981).
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Lutherans tend to look the other way when James shows up in the lectionary. After today’s reading, you can understand why. We just heard James ask, “What good is it, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (2:14) And he immediately answers his own question: NO, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:17)
Such words sit very uncomfortably alongside Luther’s claim that we are reconciled to God by grace through faith, as a free gift apart from anything we do, a claim that is at the very heart of the Reformation. No surprise then that James was not among Luther’s favorite books. In fact, he called it an “epistle of straw” and questioned its place in the New Testament canon.
Imagine this fanciful scene, some version of which really did happen; the words go back to Luther himself: Luther and a circle of students and colleagues are gathered around a table in his home (as was his habit) discussing theology over snacks and beer. Tonight they turn to James and the conversation grows animated as they catalog the theological mischief sown by this epistle. There’s a fire in the hearth at the edge of the room, and suddenly Luther opens his Bible to the book of James itself—just a few pages. He grabs them, as though to yank them out of the book, and utters in a tone that carries both humor and honest anger, “Were it up to me, why I’d throw little Jimmy into the fire!”
He said that.
Well, my life sits on the floor in that room near the edge of the hearth. My thirty-plus years as student-scholar-teacher-practitioner of theology are an attempt to say, YES, it’s possible—as a Lutheran—to be a “Jamesian Christian.”
I heard that phrase—Jamesian Christian—for the first time just this past summer, but it captures the intuition of my own faith as far back as Wartburg Seminary in the early 80’s. Somewhere, boxed up in my basement, I have a paper I wrote for a first-year Theology class. I poured the passion of my heart and mind into it. I received high marks for the clarity of my thought and writing—and an underlined note of caution about my “tendency to flirt with ‘works righteousness’.” It was a polite but real warning that, if I wasn’t careful, Luther would be casting metoward the fire next.
I thought—way back then … and for every year since—that my professor misread my passion for gospel-driven justice as somehow threatening the primacy of grace. Perhaps Luther would think so, too. But my own lived experience—intuited in thought, announced in words, embodied in deeds—is that the gospel drives justice so inexorablythat any attempt to draw a line between the two, even if theoretically possible, is unfaithful to the single sweeping movement of God in the world.
I understand Luther’s apprehension about James. Particularly, in the Reformation era—when “faith” had been largely reduced to a matter of obligatory works, some of them “good,” many of them little more than empty traditions—James was apparently invoked by church leaders to support a view of faith that everything to do with obedience to power and little if anything to do with Gospel.
I get that. But I worry nonetheless that Luther’s fiery dismissal of James misses the truth carried within his challenging words. So I intend to pull “Little Jimmy” out of the fire this morning. To do that we’ll give a nod to other readings today, but we’ll hear from Kurt Vonnegut, and a word about Aslan, the lion in Narnia. By the end, I’d like to think, if Luther were here today, he’d agree that—rightly understood—it’s only by keeping faith and works in a living relationship that we bear witness to the grace of God.
So here we go.
In Deuteronomy Moses charges the people of Israel to keep God’s commandments. He exhorts them to faithfully pass on these “statutes and ordinances” from one generation to the next. We Christians—Lutherans, in particular—have a hard time hearing the good news in Moses’ words. We hear the beginning of “the Law” under which people will only ever know the judgment of God for falling short.
But hearing it that way fails to remember that the God of Moses is also the God of Jesus. The covenant extended to Israel, while different in history and detail than the covenant extended to us through Jesus, is no less marked by grace. It also fails to listen carefully to those living within that first covenant still today. Jewish life, in all its theological and cultural diversity, is marked far more by reverence and joy than by burden.
Still, the early rabbis tallied them up at 613, these statutes and ordinances commended by Moses—and that does seem like a lot of rules. But in graduate school I heard a Jewish scholar liken them to “love notes” being passed between God and God’s people. All. Day. Long. Each action an embodied whisper of devotion spoken through the mundane rhythm of daily life. 613 love notes.
There are, of course, Ten “big ones”; we know them as the Ten Commandments. But, here, too, we miss something. In Hebrew, the verb form translated as “imperative”—as command—is actually the same as “future” tense. Only context—or perspective—determines whether it’s best to translate such words as a divine demand on the present … or a gracious promise for the future.
I find it … truthfully evocative …. to imagine the words of that covenant, offered at Sinai—to newly freed slaves—not as a new set of authoritarian rules but as a series of alluring, wedding-like promises.
“Now that I have brought you out of Egypt, let me—YAHWEH—tell you what our life together will be like …” And then, lovingly, God describes a future in which, through mutual love, the name of the God who liberated them will never be mis-used to harm others. In which killing and theft and deceit will be unknown because the depth of love between God and God’s people will empower a different type of life together. A promised life.
These are words of GRACE, my friends. And when the prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and others—rail against Israel for her shortcomings, it’s because their communal life is failing to echo the grace of that original covenant. The prophetic call to repentance is not a call back to a rigorous-but-doomed-to-fail obedience to the law. It’s a call back to grace. And it sounds a lot like the Epistle of James … and a lot like Jesus.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus at first seems to support our tendency to see Jewish “statutes and ordinances,” in these verses called “the traditions of the elders,” as empty actions. But Jesus quotes Isaiah—who is speaking for God—to explain what’s lacking: “their hearts are far from me.” Those 613 “love notes”—including the one about hand-washing—are being written in Jesus’ day … with no love in the heart.
Instead the religious leaders now cynically “manage” those “love notes” so as to consolidate and preserve their own power. In essence they mis-use words uttered with love to newly freed slaves … to re-enslave the children of Israel to a false, loveless, understanding of God.
That, of course, is exactly Luther’s Reformation declaration. He isn’t talking about empty Jewish traditions, but his claim is the same—that church leaders in his day have fashioned an abundance, a burden, of obligatory deeds in which faith is no longer the response of the heart to God’s gracious love, but a frantic, anxious attempt to earn what has already been freely offered. And, while Jesus is obviously not one of the Hebrew prophets, he stands in their lineage, announcing once again the scandalously unconditional love of God as the basis for human community. A love so dynamic, so powerful, that it cannot help but unleash waves of mercy, compassion, and justice in its wake.
Then, how do we read James’ words about faith, if NOT as a direct challenge to Luther’s conviction that the gospel is utterly free? I find the novelist and essayist Kurt Vonnegut helpful here. Hardly an esteemed biblical scholar—not even a self-identified Christian—he grew weary of hearing “good” Christians excuse the ongoing suffering caused by poverty by citing Jesus’ words in John 12, “the poor will be with you always.” As though Jesus is conveying God’s will about the way things will always be. Vonnegut countered that in John 12 Jesus is responding directly to Judas about his feigned concern over the costly ointment just used by a woman to lovingly anoint Jesus’ feet. For Vonnegut, the passage “says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor.” In words fringed with prophetic sarcasm, Jesus is saying to Judas—and to the rest of us: “So as long as you lack genuine love in your life, your world will always include poor.” The persistence of poverty doesn’t reflect God’s priorities; it reflects our priorities.
So, following Vonnegut’s reading of John 12, does James really mean that faith will not save us? If you read, even the rest of the verses assigned for today, let alone the rest of the Epistle, it’s clear that James is writing to a community that believes it can claim faith in Jesus without addressing the deep inequities of wealth in its midst. A community that believes it can, in good “faith,” kiss the hand of the wealthy while treating the poor dismissively. James’ words have the same edge as Jesus’s words. He means: “Do you really think it’s the “gospel” you heard, if your own community is still so misshapen by injustice?! Do you really think it’s “faith” you have, if it isn’t leading you to care for the poor?!”
James isn’t interested in protecting some “pure” notion of faith from flirting with good works. No, he’s alarmed—angered—at the notion of “Christian faith” that thinks it can build walls between have and have-nots … while being Christian. With prophetic zeal, James says if you want to pat yourselves on the back for your “faith,” while ignoring the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the prisoners … or immigrants, Black lives, those who say #MeToo, or others targeted by social bias—well, whatever “faith” lets you ignore these persons is notsaving faith, is notgospel faith, is not faith in the scandalous graciousness of God who liberates slaves in the same motion as justifying sinners. Faith in that God cannot be kept back from chasing after mercy, compassion, and justice.
Finally, an image from C. S. Lewis’ tales of Narnia is instructive. When the four children first stumble into Narnia, they’re told they must meet Aslan, the King of Narnia. At first they’re excited, but upon learning that Aslan, who stands for Jesus in Lewis’ fantasy of Christian faith, is a Lion, they nervously ask, “But, then, is he safe?” To which Mr. Beaver responds, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
This is the truth of James’ epistle. The luring power of God’s gracious love—expressed both in the covenant with Israel and again in the ministry of Jesus—is not safe, but it is profoundly good.
This Goodness claims each of us in love exactly as we are, and in the same breath that it claims us, this Goodness also beckons us to join in announcing and extending that love to others. Not only in words, but also in liberating deeds. And in this world—where walls rise up, where rhetoric demonizes, where structures impoverish, and where bias can kill—in this world that work—which is entirely bound up with hearing the gospel in the first place—is never safe. But it is profoundly, graciously good.
Which is why, from my place on the floor between Luther’s table and the blazing hearth, I snatch “Little Jimmy” out of the fire, before the first page even lights in flame, and I say to an astonished Luther, “Wait, friend, James isn’t arguing with you. He’s arguing for the power of the Gospel you’re so excited about. He’s insisting that it never be walled off from the unsafe goodness of God.”
And as we know, my friends, there are those in the world today still waiting to be touched by that Goodness. May we find ways to touch them. Amen.
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David Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome(2008, http://www.tothetune.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their blended family includes six children and nine grandchildren. They like keeping close company with creation and their household has included dogs, cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and even worms. Their home, like their life, is fairly cluttered with joy. You can reach him at email@example.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”