Athletic products have some of the best motivational slogans. As I reflect on the last few weeks of readings in Ephesians and John, I can’t help but think about the slogans “Is it in you?” and “Just do it.” Both of these come to mind when I think about the last several weeks of scripture readings. For five weeks, we’ve been talking about Jesus as the Bread of Life. We have been talking about incarnation theology – that is the idea that God is made manifest in you and me through Jesus Christ.
Those are some mighty fancy words. I don’t mean to suggest that you or I do not understand them. I mean to say that sometimes we like fancy words to make us feel good about our crumby world. Of course there are many of us who understand those words but don’t quite feel up to them. Maybe the idea of God peaking out through your eyes is a bit overwhelming. Maybe you think that God only shows up when you do something good or nice. Maybe you are a good Calvinist and you believe that we are just so inherently sinful that we just can’t be that good no matter how hard we try.
Wherever you are with the idea that God is made manifest in you, I think it is important to come into today’s readings with that idea in your mind. Not only that, but I think we need to hold the idea of “God within us” in tension with the concerns expressed in Ephesians over the conflict between spiritual forces and our present reality.
And what is our present reality? Although I could talk about violence and social strife, I’d rather talk about children. They are not the future. They are part of our present reality, and they have much to teach. I received one such lesson many years ago on a playground in Savannah, GA; my son ran under the monkey bars at a playground before I could stop him. One little girl had just made it across those same monkey bars and her older sister stopped mid-swing in the middle of them to avoid hitting my son. Her sister saw her struggling and said, “Just drop and start over.” This girl of about 5yrs. old grabbed the next bar, grit her teeth, and said, “Winning is a choice!” As she made her way across, her sister rolled her eyes as if to say that she’d heard that a lot.
While I admired her tenacity, I think her story speaks volumes about our sense of self worth and the values we place on others in our society. We are a culture of winners and losers, and if winning is a choice then so is losing. We are constantly flooded with messages about the value of individual will power and getting what we deserve. We are bombarded with cries for justice over things that aren’t fair, and we are confused over the difference between personal freedom and the liberty of our society.
But that’s OK. It’s not new. It’s a part of the rugged individualism that has been both a blessing and curse to our nation from the beginning. Although our community struggles with the tensions of poverty and race just as is every American city, we are also a community that shares in the grief and the joy of having been affected by the storms of 2005 – Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While we cannot shy away from the 1,400 deaths, it is good and right to celebrate the resiliency of South Louisiana. It is good and right to recognize the fact that this community became not simply a shelter, but a place of hospitality for the population increase of around 11,000 in Lafayette Parish.
This number only continues to increase as industry grows and our community becomes more and more diverse. And while we need to look at questions about our own congregation’s ability to grow in this rising tide, our texts today are about the deeper questions and statements of faith: “Is it in you?” and “Just do it.”
The book of James is pretty clear. Don’t just talk about it. Do something about it. Practice what you preach. Just do it, right? Well, yes. Although, just because the answer is obvious doesn’t mean that it is simple. For one, we have to come back to that incarnation thing. James starts with generosity as the motivator, and generosity is fundamentally an act of, for, and by God.
God’s generosity doesn't require the kind of quid pro quo we find in today’s world where donations to charitable organizations are seen as investments that anticipate dividends. Instead, God’s generosity is what allows us to get beyond ourselves. And so it is both a gift and a command that James describes when he says be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
I’m sure it was no different then, but that seems the opposite of what we often experience today. I shudder to think how often I have reacted with anger, spoken without thinking, and expected others to listen to me. The key to it all, as James describes it, is vulnerability. We have to get rid of all selfish and self preserving attitudes in order to see what God has in mind. We must do this in our families, in our work, and in our schools. Because when we become vulnerable to others we find that true religion is expressed in the care of those who are truly vulnerable. In James’ day it was the widow and the orphan.
Today it could be anyone who is without resources or relationships of support. I have grown up hearing that the average American is a paycheck away from poverty. My children are growing up hearing about the disappearing middle class and what it means to be “debt poor.” And while we can lay blame and talk politics, the book of James simply says to care for the vulnerable and keep yourself “unstained by the world.”
What an awkward phrase that is, “Keep yourself unstained by the world.” James comes from a tradition that views our self-centeredness as a stain on the image of God that we represent. So, in the same spirit, Jesus tells the Pharisees that tradition is not the rule – honoring God is the rule.
When Jesus turns to the crowd he isn’t just being flippant or combative to the Pharisees. He honestly wants the people to understand that actions speak louder than words. He wants them to know that you can spend your whole life going to worship without ever once worshiping God! He wants them to know that ritual purity is not the same as being pure.
Then he pulls his disciples aside to explain – revealing deeper truths as he does in Mark’s Gospel. I love that he begins by saying, “You understand that I was talking about digestion and excrement, right?” Then he goes past the literal truth to explain the real truth. Everything from pride to murder and all points in between come from the intentions of the human heart. It’s not because the devil made us do it. We do it, and we love it.
In a way, he is yet again asking us that deeply theological question, “Is it in you?” Are you motivated by something that makes you feel good, or are you motivated by something that demonstrates how amazingly good God is? In our work, in our play, in our studies, in our service to others, in our time with our loved ones – in all of these things we must look beyond what is inside of us and move toward a deeper understanding of what we are inside of.
And ultimately that is nothing short of the embrace of God. And in the embrace of God my poverty of spirit is related to someone else’s poverty of riches (and v/v). And in the embrace of God, questions like “Is it in you?” and statements like “Just do it,” become reminders of Jesus as the fulfillment of the law. Jesus demonstrated and summarized the law as the love of God with all that we are and the love of neighbor as the love of self.
It’s just that simple. It’s just that hard. Don’t be stained by the refuse we cannot help but create, but be moved by the compassion of God. For if God can be compassionate with me and with you, there is no end to God’s love for others. And if there is no end to God’s compassion, then there can be no end to ours.
Let it be so this day, and may God add even greater understanding as we live and love and put God’s grace into actions of mercy and justice in God’s world. Amen.