05 September 2009

God the builder: Sermon for Proper 18 (14th Sunday after Pentecost), Year B

Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-10,14-17, Mark 7:24-37

The doctrine of »justification« is one that has divided Christians at least since the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Council of Trent. »Justification« is a theological term that basically defines at what point are we »just« in the eyes of God – that is, when are we fulfilling the Law as God foresaw, when are we being truly faithful in the fullest sense of the term, and when are we free from sin.

Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers, of course, changed the emphasis by insisting on the doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone. The principle of sola fide essentially says that without faith, no amount of good works will save you: Faith in God and Jesus Christ are absolutely necessary for being pardoned of our sinful nature. According to them, works are therefore irrelevant.

The thing is, neither of the two extremes – neither Catholic doctrine of faith and works, nor the Protestant doctrine of sola fide – really manages to tell the whole story as succinctly as today’s readings from the Epistle of St. James and from the Gospel of St. Mark.

In the Epistle, James says point-blank, »What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 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.«

In the Gospel, we see an example of Jesus living this to the letter. Jesus is of course the Son of God. He is free of sin, and by definition filled with grace – by definition as »justified« as it gets. Yet Jesus spends much of his time healing people and comforting them. Indeed that is the central aspect of His ministry as shown in the New Testament – in a time where there was no such thing as doctors or nurses or clinics or hospitals, where sickness and disease were rampant, Jesus went around making a difference. Jesus didn’t need good works, because Jesus Himself was free of sin – but it was because of His totality of grace that He performed those good works in the first place. The two ideas are absolutely inseparable.

Our good works are the necessary consequence of our faith. When we accept Christ as our Savior, we explicitly recognize our place in the Holy Church of God – that we are part of a communion of believers, but just as importantly members of the human race, itself a gift of God’s creation. God’s power and love permeate all aspects of Creation, and it is by that power that life itself exists and flourishes. It is also that power, that grace, that moves us to be there for our fellow man. A faith that is »strictly personal« is a faith that is totally hollow and without meaning. On the other hand, a faith that moves us to care for the needy and sick, the unemployed and the outcasts, indeed also for those having a crisis of faith themselves – that kind of faith is the sort that truly justifies our existence.

There is another aspect to this that is important, however, and that is the power of prayer. I think many people get confused about what prayer is for and what it’s all about, and what our place is in Creation. When our prayers don’t appear to be answered the way we imagined it, we blame God for not doing as we asked. When things don’t happen as we would like, we get angry with God. Some even turn away from faith entirely – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the statement »I can’t believe in a God that…«

That attitude, however, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what prayer is, and what we are, and why we are here. God did not just create the world for us: God created the world with us and by us. God created us to with the ability to help ourselves. God created us as part of His Creation, as His tools as part of His great plan.

When some people pray, they do so in expectation of some supernatural result. Maybe it’s to ask God’s hand in making sure the right lottery numbers are picked. One imagines the hand of God reaching down and changing the numbers on the balls as they’re drawn out of the bin. But God clearly doesn’t work that way. In the Lord’s Prayer, we don’t say »my will be done«, but »Thy will be done«: we learn to surrender our will to the greater purpose, learning to see that even when things don’t go the way we want, it still all works out in the end. Prayer is the means by which we receive grace. From prayer comes the grace and the inner peace that we need to stop worrying and start doing.

God made us so that we can complete the great plan. Our own fallen nature, our own sinfulness, is the powerful motor that drives us on. We want to do better, we want to change, we want to transform: It’s all part of the human condition.

So when we pray, we do so not to ask God’s invisible hand to do something, but to gain grace and strength from experiencing God to do what we have to do. It is from our faith that we gain entry into that experience of God so that we are motivated to do good works in the first place. We acknowledge our sinfulness, and analyze our mistakes so that we can do better. We open up the gates of our hearts to let God in, and the power of the Holy Spirit fires us on to do more in God’s name. By experiencing God, by tapping into the love of God that permeates our Universe, we experience the totality of humanity. And when we see humanity’s suffering and troubles, we want to make it all better.

The amazing thing is that thanks to God’s grace, we are able to make it all better, even if it takes generations and thousands of years. Not only that, God’s grace is free for the taking – we only have to ask for it in prayer. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, »ask, and you shall receive«. To see the results, one only has to look and see the progress of the last five thousand years of human history. When we do work to change the world for the better, we call that »social justice« – we build a just society. Like James says, »If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 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.« It is through working for »justice«, by caring for the naked and hungry, that we find »justification«. If faith doesn’t motivate someone to do work for justice, it’s not really faith at all, but rather a kind of idolatry, a distraction from the true path. When we walk that path, we build that world of justice because of our faith. Meanwhile, we can hardly blame God for the state of the world, because it’s our job to change it in the first place.

In the end, what today’s lessons reveal is that each and every one of us plays a part in that great pageant of history, as part of God’s plan. God is like Bob the Builder: God asks us, »can we fix it?« and we reply in faith, »yes we can!«

The revelation is that we are the custodians of Creation. We are the tools of God. By God’s grace, experienced through prayer, we become the hand of God itself. And that is the faith that moves mountains. Amen.