Monday, May 25, 2015

Our actions define our religion

TRUE RELIGION

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Barry R. Hirayama
This file is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of
that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S.federal government, the image is in
the public domain.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves ... If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to  keep oneself unstained from the world.  James 1:22ff.

TODAY is Rogate Sunday, a day especially dedicated to prayer.  That is what the word Rogate means, but both today's Collect and today's Epistle lesson work together to remind us that true religion is more than prayer; that it involves a life that is lived in accordance with the faith we believe.  St. James is so adamant about the matter that he declares any exercise of religion short of this ideal to be "worthless," and in another place he states that, "faith without works is dead."

Now in the logical order of things "hearing" God's word must come first, for unless we are first "born anew by the Word of truth" (James 1:18) we remain dead to the things of God.  We are but earthly creatures.  Dust.  Nothing more.

Yet baptism is not the end of the Christian experience, but the beginning.  Unless we are then catechized so that we learn to be conversant in God's Word, Christian doctrine, churchly practice and self-control ... we can never walk the walk that James insists is essential to the baptized child of God.

Yes, first we must hear the word of God because faith comes by hearing, and without faith it is impossible to please God.  That was the problem with the Israelites we encounter in today's Old Testament lesson.  They did not want to hear Moses, which means they did not want to hear God.  "Whoever hears you, hears me," says Jesus, and, "whoever rejects you, rejects me, and whoever rejects me, rejects the one who sent me."  So we must first be hearers of the Word by attending the church's worship and submitting to her instruction.

Neither was Israel happy with the sacrament-like food that the Lord provided when He gave them the Manna from heaven, but in rejecting it they were, likewise rejecting God's salvation which was fulfilled in Christ who is the True Bread from Heaven; who gave His own flesh and blood on the cross to right all that was wrong, and who gives us the same in holy communion to right all that is wrong in us, so we must also be doers of the word.  "This do in remembrance of  me."

In contrast to hard-hearted Israel, today's gospel shows us the Lord's disciples in a better light.  After three intense years of catechism they came to understand their Lord and His teaching; to understand that by their faith in Him, they too become sons of God, beloved of the Father with direct access to Him.  They heard, they believed and that night they received their First Holy Communion which prepared them to be doers of the word beginning on Pentecost.

We must be like them, so we pray in the Rogate Collect:  grant that we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding accomplish them.  Let us remember both parts of that prayer well, "by your merciful guidance" and "accomplish them."

To live a godly life today is like trying to stay cool at the equator.  Everything conspires against you, so we pray without ceasing that God would mercifully guide us in the paths of righteousness, that He would strengthen, encourage and fortify us to overcome all obstacles and to display true religion in our lives.

What is this true religion?  James' epistle is a catalogue of Christian virtue, one you should read and study often, but today he reduces it to three matters:  that Christ's holy people should learn to bridle their tongues, show mercy to the helpless, and keep themselves unstained from the world.

James has much to say about controlling the tongue.  He compares it to a spark that can set the whole world on fire.  Haven't we all found that to be true?  How fervently do we wish that we could turn back the hands of time, that we could take back that utterance that rocked our world; but one of the first lessons recruits learn in the police academy is that there are two things you can never recall:  the bullet that comes out of your gun, and the word that comes out of your mouth.

Then there is the matter of showing mercy to all who suffer want.  In James' society those were the widows and orphans.  There was no safety net for them.  When a beloved husband and father died, the bereaved could expect a life of sorrow and struggle.  James does not have social activism in mind here, but rather that God's people should see to the needs of those about them, especially those who are of the household of faith.  This is why an integral part of the Eucharist from its earliest practice was not only to bring bread and wine for use in the Sacrament, but the generous bringing of extra gifts as well, which were blessed and distributed to the poor and the sick after the mass had ended.  To be sure, holy communion could not be conceived of in the primitive church apart from the visitation of the widows and the orphans that followed, and that James reminds his hearers to observe.

There is one last item for us today:  that we should keep ourselves "unstained" from the world, not just the obvious sins that culture glorifies and normalizes, but the hetero and homo sexual sins which are all the rage today, greed, the love of pleasure, pride, envy, and the desire to get something for nothing.  There are those invisible sins as well:  trusting in fate rather than the mercy of God, and calling on "good thoughts" and "good juju," instead of praying with knowledge and confidence to the Father who loves us in the  name of the Son who reconciles us to Him.

So we pray on the Rogate Sunday, and in the days to follow, "...grant that we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding accomplish them; through Jesus Christ, our Lord..."  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

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