7th Sep, 2003

Proper XVIII – Mark D Stuart

Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

The story is told of St. Francis of Assisi going down to a village with one of his brother friars. Their purpose was to preach the Gospel. When they arrived at the village they quickly engaged the locals in conversation and passed their time helping the villagers with their work, sharing stories, entering into the life of the community. As the end of the day drew near, Francis said to one of his companions that it was time for them to return to their friary. They were about to make their way out of the village, when Francis’ companion, with great concern, said, “Didn’t we come here to preach the Gospel to these people? When are we going to do that?” Francis turned to his brother friar and said, “If these people have not heard the Gospel today, then reading from the Gospel will make no difference to them!” And they went on their way.

The letter of James states it most plainly: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers…” James has been seriously misunderstood, and consequently criticized, for apparently advocating a “theology of works,” that is to say, for allegedly holding the view that salvation is possible through doing “good works.” The statement that usually gets James into trouble is: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17) But this is merely an extension of the encouragement to be “doers of the word.” For James, the “doing” of “good works” is nothing more nor less than the normal and natural result of hearing the Good News and understanding its implications. In other words, those who hear the Gospel and understand its message will quite simply be moved to take up the work of Jesus Christ and continue that work in their own communities.

This scripture passage from James seems so clear that it needs no explanation. So, what are we going to do about it? The story goes that young priest was assigned to a small town Episcopal parish. He had lots of ideas about how he could grow the little congregation. He began by walking around town every day, trying to meet as many townspeople as he possibly could. Each day he passed by the most beautiful yard he had ever seen. A perfectly trimmed hedge surrounded the ideal garden filled with a breathtaking array of blooming flowers. It was like a perfectly ordered little world onto itself… a bright spot on the priest’s daily walks. One day walking by, the priest saw a man weeding the flowerbeds and he stopped and called over the hedge, “Good afternoon, Sir!” The elderly gardener straightened himself up and walked over, “Well, howdy, Padre,” the gardener said as he leaned on his hoe. “What can I do for you?” “Everyday when I pass your property, I marvel over the beauty of God’s creation. What a tremendous gift you have from God in this yard. It’s a wonder to behold the bounty of the world God has given us.” The gardener stretched a bit and then leaning on his hoe again he said, “Well, Padre, I’m mighty thankful for your words. I’m glad you like my garden an’ all. But, I find it a mite curious that you call it a gift from God. Three years back, when I bought this place, it was the biggest tangle of weeds you ever saw. Best I can tell this yard was a mess when God had the place to Himself!”

That little story tells the truth of the matter: there is a connection between God’s gifts and our work. Both the priest and the gardener were right. God created the potential for the glorious beauty of the garden, but the gardener worked as a partner with God to bring the gift to fullness. In James’ letter we hear that the connection between God’s gifts and our work. He tells that every generous act and every perfect gift comes from God. All that is beautiful in the world; all that is right with the world is a gift from God. God’s gifts come first; we give to others only after God has given to us. James says that if we don’t do anything about our faith, it’s like a person who looks in a mirror and then walks away forgetting what they look like. The mirror James is taking about is God’s Word. We look at ourselves in God’s Word and see the image it reflects back. We should see our own lives reflected in the Word and then are called to respond. Being a doer of the Word is to personalize God’s meaning in our lives, to know that our faith is not left inside the walls of St. Thomas when we leave Mass.

“Be doers of the word and merely hearers…” Before we can do, we need to hear, or rather to listen… It’s like the husband and wife married for many years. The wife would often break off a conversation to demand, “Did you hear what I said?” And the husband would look up from his newspaper mystified. Eventually she learned of a free hearing clinic to be held at the local mall and took her husband there for testing. The doctor, after finishing the exam, told the man, “Sir, your hearing is fine. But you might need a marriage counselor.” It is true that we often tune each other out. Partners and spouses can turn a deaf ear to each other, as children can do to their parents, or aging parents can do to their adult children. Sometimes communities of people will not hear the pleas for help from poor, oppressed, or neglected neighbors. One of the greatest challenges to people trying to raise an issue on a national level is getting heard through all the political agendas and special interest groups who have a stake in the status quo.

Remember, “denial” is not a river in Egypt! Deafness and denial are pretty similar things, both personally and on a wider level. And that’s exactly where Jesus brings the power of God to bear in the Gospel lesson from Mark today. Like the greater message of His whole ministry, Jesus confronts what is wrong with the world and makes it right; what is broken and makes it whole; what is afflicted and heals. That is the intention of the Gospel: that it be a living and continuing reality in the presence of God’s people in places where there is distress, injustice, affliction, and all that is contrary to God’s purpose for humanity.

James understood this call to continuing action…the story of the Good News continues through the centuries right to this day. When we Christians seek the lost, comfort the grieving, reach out to the afflicted, we are neither acting for our own sake nor just because we are “nice” people. We are not acting because we believe we are earning a place in the kingdom and buying a fire insurance policy against hell. No, we are called to do these things because we are called to do the work of Jesus and are called to take the Good News to places and people where it is unable to be heard, for whatever reason. We take the message to places where people have no voice, among the poor and the powerless. For today the deaf and the mute are found everywhere, even in the church.┬áMark’s Gospel is a reminder of God’s Will that suffering should no longer be the common condition of humanity. The letter of James reminds us Christians that we have an essential share in exactly the same work as Jesus. In the words of St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel everywhere… and if necessary, use words!”

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