Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Inspired by James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17

“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, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” James 2:14-16 (NRSV)

The relationship between faith and works in regards to salvation has always been complicated. On the one hand many believe that we are saved by faith alone, not by works. On the other hand many believe that if we do not do enough of the right works, we cannot be saved. Which belief is right?

Part of the problem comes from taking the approach that our salvation has yet to occur. The truth is that we were saved by Christ on the cross; it’s already happened, and whatever we do now is in response to that grace, not in order to obtain it. And when we consider the question in that light, then we can begin to see that faith and works are two sides of the same coin, inseparable from each other.

A life-changing faith will naturally manifest itself in action, appropriate to the gifts and circumstances of the individual. In the example from James, both the wealthy and the poor are identified as brothers and sisters in Christ, but with different expectations based on their different circumstances. Those without the means to provide food or clothing for themselves are not expected to provide food or clothing for others, but because of their faith that God shows no partiality, they can reasonably expect material help from those who are able to provide it. And those who are wealthy, if they also understand that God shows no partiality, will see to the needs of those less fortunate, not because they expect to earn a reward, but because their faith in Christ has shaped their worldview in such a way that they simply can’t justify doing otherwise.

Jesus cared about the spiritual needs of the people. He cared about their physical needs, as well. As his followers, we’re also called to care about both.

Let us pray. God of abundance, you created us body, mind, and soul. Help us to serve the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of others, that all may know your care for the whole person. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 15, Saturday, Year B

Inspired by Isaiah 33:1-9

“Ah, you, destroyer, who yourself have not been destroyed; you treacherous one, with whom no one has dealt treacherously! When you have ceased to destroy, you will be destroyed; and when you have stopped dealing treacherously, you will be dealt with treacherously.” Isaiah 33:1 (NRSV)

In this day and age, we’re encouraged to ‘look out for number one,’ or do whatever it takes to make sure our own interests are achieved and not worry about anyone else. Sometimes this is done ethically, but it’s all too easy to cut a corner here, cheat just a little bit there, and not notice the far-reaching consequences of our actions.

But most of our actions do have far-reaching consequences and impact the lives of those we’ll never meet. While it’s trivial to ignore their existence, the truth is that they do exist, and they have to live with the consequences of our actions. And though we may never meet them, or even hear their stories, they are just as much God’s beloved children as we are, and just as deserving of grace, mercy, and justice.

Consider the choices you make, the votes you cast, the products and companies you support with your purchases. If you enjoy a discount at the expense of someone else having to work in unsafe conditions, is it worth it? If your comfort is maintained at the expense of someone else living in poverty, is it worth it? How would you feel if the situation were reversed and you were at the mercy of someone else making decisions that benefitted them, regardless of the cost to you?

Those who have never experienced such an environment have difficulty recognizing the human costs of their choices. Seek out the stories of those who do live in such environments, and consider what changes you can make to encourage justice over exploitation.

Let us pray. Compassionate Lord, you know injustice is the reality for so many of your people. Help us to better understand how we are interconnected, that we may establish more equitable ways of functioning in the world. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 15, Friday, Year B

Inspired by Romans 2:12-16

“All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Romans 2:12-13 (NRSV)

We want to live in a world in which our societies and their laws support and uphold our obedience to God’s commandments. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the world is. Not everyone recognizes God’s commandments as authoritative for their lives, so many of our laws permit practices that are contrary to what we believe. They don’t mandate them, meaning we are free to continue obeying God’s law without violating the law of the land, but they don’t prevent others from disobeying the Lord, either.

In response to this, many faithful Christians condemn the law of the land, as well as anyone who engages in those things that the law of the land allows, but that God’s law forbids. But even when we’re motivated by an earnest desire for all to know God and experience his grace, we still put ourselves in the role of judge. We brush off the fact that we all sin and are need of God’s mercy, and justify our own shortcomings by hiding behind the name ‘Christian.’ Our behavior suggests that we consider ourselves righteous because we know the law, regardless of our ability (or lack thereof) to keep the law.

Knowing the will of the Lord is not enough; we are called to submit to him in every aspect of our lives. That includes not judging others for their sinful behavior, and instead treating them with the love, mercy, respect, and grace that Christ showed us when we crucified him for our sins.

God in Christ gave everything that we may be saved; such a gift cannot be codified in law, but shared by living in love, as Christ loved us.

Let us pray. Merciful God, you gave your law as a gift and a promise. Help us to obey your word in humility, that others may see your grace reflected in our lives. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 15, Thursday, Year B

Inspired by Romans 2:1-11

“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’” Romans 2:1-2 (NRSV)

Would God give us commandments if he didn’t care whether we followed them or not? Of course not! The will of the Lord is not to be disregarded in favor of our own preferences and opinions. He gave us his law as a gift, that by following it we may live fully in him, and help create a community in which all are honored and free.

God’s law is perfect and ideal; we are not. Each and every one of us violates some aspect of the perfect will of God, sinning against him and spurning his desire for our wellbeing. At such times it is helpful to be part of a faith community, where we can be reminded of the love and forgiveness of our Lord, and be guided back to the right path. We need that reminder ourselves, and we need to be that reminder for others.

But never are we called to judge. We are not called to judge those within our communities of faith, and we are not called to judge those outside our communities of faith. We are only called to be witnesses to God’s saving grace, and to love our neighbors, even those whose choices we disagree with.

We know that God’s judgment on those who do sinful things is in accordance with truth. But it is God’s judgment, not ours, and we cannot fully grasp his truth. God’s law is perfect, his judgment is perfect, and his mercy is perfect. All we can do is be grateful for his mercy, seek his truth, and trust his judgment.

Let us pray. God of justice, you alone are worthy to judge, because you alone are perfect. Grant us the humility to seek your truth, that our own imperfect judgment may not get in the way of your perfect proclamation. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 14, Wednesday, Year B

Inspired by Mark 7:9-23

“Then [Jesus] said to [the Pharisees and the scribes], “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” Mark 7:9 (NRSV)

For much of Christian history, literacy rates were low and only the priests and religious leaders were able to read the bible. They told everyone else what the bible said, and they also established many extra-biblical traditions that made sense for their times and circumstances.

Today most Christians can read the bible in their own language. But many do not, relying instead on what they have been told by their pastors, by their parents, by famous and successful preachers who publish books and produce television shows, even by random people on social media. Some of what is being passed around is accurate; much of it has nothing to do with biblical Christianity, even as it claims otherwise.

We all rely on a mix of biblical promise and human tradition to pattern our lives of discipleship. If a human tradition is helpful to us in living lives that honor God’s commandments, then there is nothing wrong with it. But if a human tradition actually prevents us from obeying God’s commandments, then that tradition is harmful and should be disregarded. For example, many Christians put a lot of effort into living righteously and remaining unstained by worldly influences. Unfortunately that often translates into avoiding or even condemning other people, which violates Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself. The truth is that it’s easier to keep ourselves separate than it is to love our neighbors—regardless of who they are or what they do—but we cannot let our comfortable traditions stand in the way of obeying our Lord.

What Christian practices are central to your faith? Are they in the bible? Is the context clear? And most importantly, are they helping you to obey the commandments of God?

Let us pray. Holy Lord, there are many ways to worship and honor you. Enable us to discern the difference between our own traditions and preferences, and those things which you truly require of us. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 14, Tuesday, Year B

Inspired by 1 Peter 2:19-25

“When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2:23-24 (NRSV)

The bible can provide words of comfort to those who are suffering, but it can also be used to justify and needlessly prolong suffering, twisting and perverting the good news of God’s grace it is intended to proclaim.

The text cited above has often been used to instruct victims of domestic violence to remain with and submit to their abusers, because one who accepts suffering and abuse as Christ did receives God’s approval. However this text is in specific reference to slaves accepting the authority of their masters, which was itself in reference to all Christians accepting the authority of every human institution. By doing so, and still remaining true to the Lord and doing right in his eyes, the faithful would silence the ignorance of the foolish. This has happened on many occasions, and human institutions have changed as a result. Although slavery was a common human institution in biblical times, the ignorance of it has since been exposed, and it is no longer an acceptable practice. Likewise, the treatment of women and children as the property of the husband and father has since been exposed as ignorance, and women and children now have the recognized right to expect safety in their home environments.

When Christ was abused, he did not return abuse. When he suffered, he did not threaten. Those examples are still worth following, regardless of the circumstances. God alone is judge, and we are called to entrust both ourselves and those who have wronged us to him. But we do not have to endure needless suffering in order to achieve our salvation; Christ has already done that for us, and it is by his wounds that we have been healed.

Let us pray. Compassionate God, you neither require nor desire us to suffer abuse or live in misery because of someone else’s selfish whims. Grant us the wisdom to discern the difference between standing firm in righteousness and suffering needlessly, that we may honor you and live the grace we have through your Son. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 14, Monday, Year B

Inspired by Deuteronomy 4:9-14

“But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.” Deuteronomy 4:9 (NRSV)

We all have a history. We all have a narrative that shapes our lives. We have all experienced things personally that have influenced our choices and worldviews, and we all come from a long line of people who have experienced things that have influenced them and how they have raised their children, throughout the generations. Much of who we are is inherited from the experiences of our ancestors.

It is helpful to know who and where we came from, even as we acknowledge that our past is not our destiny. While our history influences our choices and our worldview, it does not determine our future.

As Christians, we have been saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. His salvific act has already been accomplished; his disciples have seen the empty tomb and the risen Christ. They have spread the word of his glory to the ends of the earth, and his story has been told through the ages. His story, the good news of his coming, has been told to us, not simply as a piece of interesting information, but as part of our own history. Jesus Christ came to save us. His story is part of our story.

God in Christ is our past, our present, and our future. Never let the sure knowledge of his love slip from your mind; let the truth of his grace shape your choices and your worldview.

Let us pray. Everlasting God, your steadfast love endures forever. Help us to recognize your ongoing acts of grace, that we may be reminded of your mercy throughout our days. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Inspired by James 1:17-27

“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:26-27 (NRSV)

There are many ways in which our laws and cultures do not reflect godly living. Personal freedoms seem more important than personal morality, and greed is more important than charity.

Many Christians feel obligated to raise an outcry regarding these un-Christian values, but most of the condemnation is directed towards personal morality. Those who condemn laws that allow people to make lifestyle choices which contradict biblical teachings also demand deep cuts to be made to social programs designed to feed the poor and care for the sick. There is much shouting and very little listening, all in the name of God.

Christianity was never designed to be a political system; there will always be laws in place that contradict the will of the Lord. But just because something is permitted by the law of the land does not mean that Christians must practice it; we can remain ‘unstained’ by the world no matter how much immorality is legalized.

But we are also called to care for those in distress in every way that we can. If government programs support those goals, then we are called to support those programs. If the government does not do enough, then we are called to step in with our own resources and accomplish what the government failed to do.

Do you practice your religion by helping those in need? What choices can you make that help you to remain ‘unstained’ by the world while also caring for those in distress?

Let us pray. Compassionate Lord, you have always cared for ‘the least of these.’ Grant us a spirit of humility, that we may seek the wellbeing of others above our own opinions and comfort. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 14, Saturday, Year B

Inspired by John 18:28-32

“So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’” John 18:29-30 (NRSV)

Over the centuries many ideas have gained popularity regarding God and how best to worship him and live according to his will. Some of those ideas were fads that fell out of favor after a while; others took root and became part of the tradition that some of us have inherited. But not everything that fell out of favor was worthless, nor is everything that we’ve inherited worth keeping. To determine what is true, we must constantly ask, “Why do we do this? How does this honor God?”

Some of the truths we cling to are based on nothing more than tradition, inertia, and our own sensibilities. When we’re called to justify our beliefs, we make circular arguments; our arguments derive from the ‘truth’ of our initial claim, and therefore support them. For example, the religious leaders believed Jesus to be a criminal. When the Roman governor, acting as judge, asked them what Jesus’ crime was, they merely pointed out that Jesus had been handed over to the Roman governor, and since only criminals were handed over like that, Jesus must be a criminal. No facts, no details of a crime committed. The only proof they had that Jesus was a criminal was the fact that they were treating him like one.

Questioning our practices is healthy for maintaining a living, active faith in our living, active God. He is no empty, circular argument; while he cannot be ‘proven’ with the scientific method, the effects of his love in the world can be perceived. Likewise we cannot assume that all who stand accused of being ‘un-Christian’ actually are, or that those who are rejected by today’s religious authorities are also rejected by God.

What are some of your religious assumptions that haven’t been questioned in a while? What do you get out of clinging to them? Do they honor the God who was executed as a criminal and responded by conquering death and forgiving those who killed and abandoned him?

Let us pray. Loving God, your compassion for us overcame our guilt. Help us to consider our own assumptions with a critical eye, that we may truly honor you in all that we say and do. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 14, Friday, Year B

Inspired by Exodus 32:15-35

“Moses said to Aaron, ‘What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?’ And Aaron said, ‘Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’” Exodus 32:21-24 (NRSV)

We all want to interpret our own actions in the best possible light. When confronted with our own wrongdoing, we usually cast blame on others, and minimize our own culpability.

When asked why he had brought so great a sin upon the people by making the golden calf, Aaron blamed the people, appealing to Moses’ own experience with them to verify that they were “bent on evil.” He accurately described the people coming to him with the request for new gods, but then revised and minimized his own role in making that false god. According to his retelling to Moses, Aaron simply threw all the gold into the fire, and this calf magically formed itself and came out of its own accord! Aaron conveniently left out the part where he meticulously shaped the gold into a mold and intentionally cast the image of a calf.

Aaron was not a victim of circumstance, and, most of the time, neither are we. Aaron made a choice, just as we do. Sometimes they are good choices; sometimes they are not. But the only way to receive forgiveness is to acknowledge our need for it, and confess our sins. Completely and accurately.

Our God is a forgiving God, and he knows us better than we know ourselves. Trust in his mercy, confess your sins, and receive his forgiveness.

Let us pray. Forgiving God, your capacity for forgiveness is greater than our capacity for sin. Grant us the courage to own our sinfulness, that we may be cleansed by your mercy and grace. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.