Monthly Archives: September 2018

Sunshine and Shark Attacks

As you probably already know, a shark attack tragically ended the life of Arthur Medicia, a twenty-six-year old man, on Newcomb Hollow Beach here in Wellfleet last Friday. This horrible occurrence put our small town on the map for at least one news cycle and cast a dark cloud over the end of an otherwise uneventful summer season. Newcomb Hollow is, in my opinion, the loveliest of our four ocean beaches and a favorite haunt of Sesle and me. The dunes are rich with sea grasses, pitch pines, oaks and a large variety of flowering plants. The cliffs overlooking the ocean are majestic and the sand is as white and soft as any you are likely to find in the tropics. On that particular sunny morning, wave upon frothy wave broke silky white out of a sea as blue as the sky above. It was a perfect beach day and the last time and place you would expect to encounter violence and death. A memorable utterance of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead comes to mind: “fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross.”[1]

The following Sunday I was in church listening to a preacher struggle at making sense out of this terrible loss of life. He was clearly moved by Arthur’s cruel and untimely death. His deep compassion spoke volumes even though we were left with less than an explanation for what still seems for all the world like a random, violent and meaningless act of nature. I have long since concluded that tragedies like these have only as much meaning as we can give them. We give meaning to lives lost in war by striving for peace. We give meaning to lives lost to cancer by dedicating ourselves to finding treatments for the disease. We give meaning to lives crushed under the wheel of oppression by striving for a more just and peaceful world. So how do we give meaning to the life of Arthur Medicia, a young man killed while out enjoying the ocean waves with his family?

Some verses from Psalm 104 in praise of God’s creative power might be of some assistance:

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

Psalm 104:24-26.

I can appreciate the psalmist’s sense of wonder and awe. When you stand on the ocean shore, you can’t help being overcome with the beauty and grandeur of this planet with its manifold living and non-living forces. The ocean is indeed filled with marvelous creatures, but these include the sea monster, Leviathan. Just as C.S. Lewis reminds us that God is not a “tame lion,” so the psalmist would have us know that the world God made is not a safe playground. Those of you who happen to be of my vintage know what I am talking about. For you youngsters, I am referring to playgrounds with which you are familiar and perhaps the only ones you have ever known. They were all built since the 1990s. They are paved with soft, rubbery padding and equipped with cushioned playthings designed to prevent injury. You won’t get hurt in these play areas, but if you are over six, you probably won’t have much fun there either. By fun I mean the sensation of rocketing into the sky on a wooden slab swing and the thrill that comes with coming face to face with the sky for just an instant before falling back to earth. I am talking about the merry-go-rounds that the strongest and fastest among us would crank up to warp speed while the rest of us clung for dear life against the pull of centripetal force. There were more skinned knees and elbows back then. Occasionally we broke bones. Rarely, but tragically, we saw some serious injuries. But maybe that’s the cost of having fun, of living fully in this marvelous world, of playing in the vast oceans where Leviathan and the great white sharks sport.[2]

This Monday morning my daily bike ride took me on a turn down to Newcomb Hollow Beach. At the end of the parking lot was a sign posted by the township announcing the closure of the shore to swimming and surfing until further notice. Surrounding that sign were bouquets of flowers and shell arrangements memorializing Arthur Medici. Down in the water I could see about half a dozen surfers taking advantage of the high surf in seeming defiance of the sign’s injunction. Foolhardy? No more so than me when I hop on my bike to negotiate the narrow, curvy and shoulderless highways of the outer Cape. I am aware that cars kill far more cyclists than sharks do swimmers. Still, I ride. I love the sea wind in my face and the scent of the ocean. I love the exhilaration of cresting a hill and coasting down the other side. I love the subtle sights and sounds of the national forest that you miss when you travel through it in a cage of steel and glass. Like those surfers, like Arthur Medici, I believe that life, however short or long it might turn out to be, is far too precious to spend in a safe playground. So I will honor and give meaning to the life of Arthur Medici by fully celebrating and living in God’s beautiful, mysterious and terrifying universe-Leviathan and all.[3]

[1] Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality (c. 1978 The Free Press, NY) p. 338.

[2] I feel compelled to put this incident in some sort of context. This event was the Cape’s first shark fatality since the 1930s. Shark attacks are rare in these parts for a couple of reasons. First, understand that white sharks typically do not attack human beings intentionally. On those occasions when they do attack, it is usually because they mistake us for something else. A surfer in a black wet suit looks a lot like a seal to a hungry shark. You reduce your chances of encountering a shark substantially by staying away from seals and avoiding the water at dawn and dusk. Second, during the official holiday season, the beaches are under the watchful eye of lifeguards who are trained in emergency medicine as well as water rescues. They are skilled at spotting rip currents and detecting the approach of marine life dangerous to swimmers, including sharks. The life guards are in radio contact with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy which studies and monitors shark activity. That does not preclude the possibility that a white shark might slip through undetected into swimming areas and attack swimmers as happened earlier this year in the neighboring town of Touro. But your chances of suffering harm from a shark are exceedingly small. After Labor Day, the beaches are unmonitored and swimmers are essentially on their own. Because cell phone reception is poor to non-existent on the beach, anyone spotting a swimmer in distress would need to run back to the point of beach entry and climb up the substantial incline to the parking lot in order to call for help. Even so, rip currents and hypothermia are far more likely to take you out than a shark.

[3] Predictably, this tragedy has inspired the usual upsurge in shark hysteria and calls for the elimination of great white sharks from the Cape or the seals drawing them to our shores. This, in my view, amounts to little more than creating a “safe playground” on a grander scale. Though I am no marine biologist, I can still say that, from a biblical standpoint, altering the ecosystem of the Cape for no better reason than eliminating what we know to be a slight risk to some vacationers constitutes an act of profound homocentric arrogance.

Questions We Fear Asking to Escape Truths We Prefer not to Know

See the source imageEIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13 — 4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Prayer of the Day: O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
 
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Mark 9:30-32.

I can well understand why the disciples were afraid to question Jesus about what he had just told them. We often don’t ask a question when we suspect we won’t like the answer. There are times when I would rather not know the truth, times when I am afraid of the truth, times when I prefer to go on believing what I know are very probably lies to learning the truth. But denial comes at a terrible cost. In a profoundly moving article titled “The Hidden Truth” published recently in the Wellesley College Magazine, Wellesley alumnus Julie Catterson Lindahl finds the courage to ask some hard questions about her family’s history and recounts at length her efforts to uncover the truth about her grandparents’ dark past. Lindahl, a child of German immigrants who came to Brazil after the war, writes:

“I had been raised to believe that my maternal grandfather, my Opa, whom I had met as a toddler but couldn’t remember as an adult, was a farmer who only wanted “the best.” He had managed land in Poland during the war, I had been told, and in 1960 had resettled in Brazil, the land of my birth, where there were better land prospects. He was obsessed with work and being “correct.” That was the truth delivered to me in childhood—perhaps to protect someone, though I am not sure whom. The manner of delivery was often indignant and left me burning with shame. Because I was a child and a grandchild, this person, my Opa, had to be explained.”

Lindahl explains how “when a family stifles its own history, it leaves an indignation that easily tips over into rage.” Her grandmother indignantly insisted that her grandfather had nothing to do with the SS-yet interspersed with this denial were angry assertions that Hitler had done a lot of good that had been unjustly forgotten; that the Holocaust was largely exaggerated-if it ever even happened; that Germany and its people were the real victims of the Second World War. Lindahl had plenty of reason to believe that the truth was being hidden from her and her quest to find it was born out of a “desperation, the unbearableness of continuing to walk blindfolded, and the desire to spare my children this condition.”

Turns out that the only prospect more terrifying than learning the truth is the hell you create for yourself spending your life hiding from it. It takes an enormous degree of emotional effort to live with the protective lies that must be told to justify and excuse an alcoholic relative’s addictive behavior. It is hard, too, for victims of sexual abuse who, under pressure from their employers or their own family members, deny and suppress their experiences in order to protect their abusers. The lies promising to protect us from the truth ultimately turn on us. They keep us in bondage to the past and cast a dark cloud over the future. They require us to sacrifice our integrity for the sake of a peace that is no peace.

Jesus loves us too much to allow us to go on hiding from the truth. Knowing the truth sets us free, but that freedom does not come easily. It requires us to relinquish the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. It demands that we let go of the narrative in which we are the heroes, the innocent victims, the martyrs. Learning the truth about ourselves is a painful and disruptive process. But it is the only way to healing, freedom and true peace. That is as true for us collectively as it is individually. I have said before and I will say again that perhaps the one important accomplishment of the Trump administration is its uncovering the deep and systemic racism that continues to infect our life as a people. The truth is that there continues to be a powerful sense of entitlement among white folk like me who are blind to the systemic discrimination that confronts people of color on a daily basis in government, education and the workplace. The truth is that there is a deep seated fear among those of us who benefit daily from white privilege that we are about to lose “our” country to people with dark skin, strange accents and unfamiliar religions. Donald Trump didn’t create any of this, but he aptly exploited it and, albeit unwittingly, diagnosed and exposed our deep societal sickness.

The truth that heals is laid bare in the cross of Jesus Christ. It is a truth that we fear because it exposes us for who we are: people who are complicit in the murder of God’s beloved Son. That complicity takes the shape of our own culturally inherited racial prejudices as well as our nation’s systemic racism. Sometimes the good news about Jesus Christ needs to be experienced as bad news before it can be heard as good. The gospels are not easy reads if we take them seriously. There are no heroes with whom we can identify. Our spiritual ancestors, the apostles, are shown to be traitors, cowards and deserters. That is the story we tell on ourselves every year at Holy Week. That is who we are. But the good news isn’t finally about who we are, but about who God is. God is the one who raises up his crucified Son, the most precious gift God has to give and the gift that we ruthlessly rejected-and gives him back to us. Knowing who God is gives us the courage to confront who we are-and move beyond it.

I sometimes worry whether we who call ourselves disciples are really making an effort to grapple with the truth of racism. The New Jersey Synod  of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which I was recently a member, has been sponsoring “conversations” about race at its annual assemblies. At the last assembly I attended, I heard a colleague remark: “I’m sick of this! All we ever do is talk and it’s the same stuff over and over.” He was right. These conversations often are frustrating, both for those of us identifying as white who can’t understand why we can’t let bygones be bygones and just get along and the more so for the few persons of color in our church who are increasingly impatient with our blindness to their experience of racism as a present and pervasive reality, not a “bygone.” But we have to start somewhere and I think there is no better place to start than with those of us who have become accustomed to privilege and the benefits it brings listening-without judgment, without defensiveness and without the assumption that we can “fix” everything-to the way persons of color experience life in our American culture and, more importantly, in our church. We might not like what we hear, but as Julie Catterson Lindahl discovered and what disciples of Jesus know, it is the truth that sets us free.

Here is a poem by Roberta Hill reminding us that truth is “scarred” and bound up as much with suffering and death as life and beauty.
 
Leap In The Dark

“The experience of truth is indispensible
for the experience of beauty and the sense
of beauty is guided by a leap in the dark.”
Arthur Koestler

I.

Stoplights edged the licorice street with ribbon,
neon embroidering wet sidewalks. She turned

into the driveway and leaped in the dark. A blackbird
perched on the bouncing twig of a maple, heard

her whisper, “Stranger, lover, the lost days are over.
While I walk from car to door, something inward opens

like four o’clocks in rain. Earth, cold from autumn,
pulls me. I can’t breathe the same

with dirt for marrow and mist for skin,
blurring my vision, my vision’s separate self.

I stand drunk in this glitter, under the sky’s grey shelter.
The city maple, not half so bitter, hurls itself

in two directions, until both tips darken and disappear,
as I darken my reflection in the smoking mirror

of my home. How faint the sound of dry leaves,
like the clattering keys of another morning, another world.”

II.

She looked out the window at some inward greying door.
The maple held her glance, made ground fog from her cigarette.

Beyond uneven stairs, children screamed,
gunned each other down. Then she sealed her nimble dreams

with water from a murky bay. “For him I map
this galaxy of dust that turns without an answer.

When it rains, I remember his face in the corridor
of a past apartment and trace the anguish around his mouth,

his wrinkled forehead, unguarded eyes, the foreign fruit
of an intricate sadness. With the grace that remains,

I catch a glint around a door I cannot enter.
The clock echoes in dishtowels; I search love’s center

and bang pans against the rubble of my day, the lucid
grandeur of wet ground, the strangeness of a fatal sun

that makes us mark on the margin of our loss,
trust in the gossamer of touch, trust in the late-plowed field.”

III.

When the sun opened clouds and walked into her mongrel soul,
she chopped celery into rocky remnants of the sea,

and heard fat sing up bread, a better dying.
The magnet in each seed of the green pepper kept her flying,

floating toward memories that throb like clustered stars:
the dark water laughter of ducks, a tangle of November oaks,

toward sudden music on a wheel of brilliant dust
where like a moon she must leap back and forth

from emptiness. “I remember the moon shimmering
loss and discovery along a water edge, and skirting

a slice of carrot, I welcome eternity in that sad eye of autumn.
Rare and real, I dance while vegetables sing in pairs.

I hug my death, my chorus of years, and search
and stretch and leap, for I will be apprentice to the blood

in spite of the mood of a world
that keeps rusting, rusting the wild throats of birds.”

IV.

In lamplight she saw the smoke of another’s dream:
her daughter walk woods where snow weighs down pine,

her son cry on a bridge that ends in deep-rooted dark,
her man, stalled on a lonely road, realize his torque

was alcohol and hatred. “Hungry for silence, I listen
to wind, to the sound of water running down mountain,

my own raw breath. Between the sounds, a seaborn god
plays his reed in the caverns of my being.

I wear his amethyst, let go my dreams: Millars, Lacewings,
and Junebugs scatter, widen and batter the dark,

brightening this loud dust with the fever of their eyes.
Oh crazy itch that grabs us beyond loss

and lets us forgive, so that we can answer birds and deer,
lightning and rain, shadow and hurricane.

Truth waits in the creek, cutting the winter brown hills.
It sings with needles of ice, sings because of its scar.”

Star Quilt, Roberta Hill, (c. 1984 by Roberta Hill Whiteman, pub. by Holy Cow! Press, 1984) Roberta Hill, is a poet of Wisconsin of Oneida heritage. She grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, among the Oneida community. She earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Montana and a PhD in American studies from the University of Minnesota. She has produced three poetry collections, including Star Quilt, the work from which the above poem is taken. Her work has also been published in Carriers of the Dream Wheel: Contemporary Native American Poetry (1975); The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States (1980), and Harper’s Anthology of Twentieth Century Native American Poetry (1988). She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant. You can find out more about Roberta Hill and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Beach Erosion, Mortality and Discipleship

SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Prayer of the Day: O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Mark 8:35.

“[W]e were never meant to survive.” Audre Lorde, A Litany for Survival

If you look closely at the above image, you will see the active erosion of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at LeCount Hollow beach on Cape Cod where I now live. It’s a constant reminder to us that the land on which we live is being consumed at the average rate of about three feet per year. The Cape is a relatively young body of land, having existed in its current form for approximately 25,000 years. That is hardly a minute in geological time, but from the standpoint of those who call the Cape home, it might as well be forever. It is unsettling to walk along the beach and view homes once safely inland now on the verge of falling into the ocean. We don’t need poet Audre Lorde to tell us that “we were never meant to survive.” Nor do we need Jesus to tell us that, no matter how hard we might try to save ourselves from the sea and everything else threatening us, we are fighting a losing battle. Though we live in denial of this fact most of the time, we know deep down that everyone dies as do the civilizations, nations and families through which they hope to perpetuate their memories. In time, our planet will become a cold, lifeless rock circling a dying star. There will be no sign that any of us ever lived here, nor anyone to see it even if such a sign did exist. And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.

But Jesus goes on to tell us something more, something extraordinary, something that isn’t at all self-evident: “Those who lose their lives for my sake and for the gospel will save it.” Mark 8:35. It didn’t make much sense to Jesus’ disciples then. It still doesn’t make much sense-except for the fact that God raised Jesus from death. If you believe that, then you have got to believe that God’s love for the world and God’s stubborn determination to save it from itself is stronger than the world’s hatred for God and its resistance to his gracious intent for it. If you believe that God raised Jesus, then you have got to believe that death is not the last word: not for the universe, not for the earth and not for you. If you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then you have got to believe that God is at work in the midst of our dying to forge a new creation. If the future belongs to Jesus, then the place to be is with him among the poor, the persecuted, the hungry and the hated. The option of saving your life does not exist. You can lose it to Jesus and trust him to transform and return it to you, or you can cling to it until death finally pries it from your cold dead fingers.

I have often pondered what “losing” my life to Jesus might mean for me. For the New Testament church, this was not an abstract hypothetical. One could die then for acknowledging Jesus (not Caesar) as Lord. Though I can hardly imagine such a thing happening in this country, I have seen a great many things in my lifetime that I once thought unimaginable. What I have no need to imagine is the hatefulness, the spite and often violence directed against disciples of Jesus who stand with “undocumented” persons, black victims of police brutality, gay, lesbian and transgendered persons. I know people whose jobs have been jeopardized, whose families have turned on them and whose friends have deserted them for speaking the hard truths Jesus would have us speak, for doing the works of justice and mercy Jesus would have us do and placing loyalty to God’s reign of peace over all other claims of sovereignty. I cannot honestly say that I am among even these martyrs. I am therefore compelled to ask myself whether this is because the occasion for losing my life has never arisen or whether I am too much blinded by my survival instincts to recognize Jesus’ lifegiving call to lose myself in him.

For all the uncomfortable questions this gospel lesson raises for us, it is finally good news. As I witness the erosion of our land, the disintegration of our democracy and the degeneration of my own aging body, it becomes clearer each day that “we are not meant for survival.” However hard we may try to save ourselves, we will finally lose everything in the end. That much we can see for ourselves. What we often cannot see, but what Jesus promises is that the bonds of love formed by our association with him are eternal and that our life in him is the stuff out of which God is even now fashioning a new heaven and earth. A life poured out in love for God and for our neighbor is not wasted. What appear to be the death throws of life as we know it are, in reality, the birth pangs of a new creation under the gentle reign of our gracious God.

Here is the Audre Lorde poem referenced above.

A Litany for Survival

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
futures
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraidof indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

Source: The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, (c. 1997 by the Audre Lorde Estate, pub. by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.) Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was born in New York City to West Indian immigrant parents. She published her first poem in Seventeen magazine while still in high school. She describes herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Lorde dedicated her considerable literary talent to addressing the evils of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Hunter College and a masters from Columbia University. Lorde taught English literature at John Jay College and Hunter College. She was poet laureate of New York from 1991-1992. Lorde’s other honors and awards included a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. You can read more about Audre Lorde and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Of Faith and Works-The Apostle James vs. Martin Luther

See the source imageSIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

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

Prayer of the Day: Gracious God, throughout the ages you transform sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power of your presence, and make us a people ready to proclaim your promises to the whole world, through Jesus Christ, our healer and Lord.

“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” James 2:1-17.

This is the verse Lutherans like me dread. On its face, it contradicts the Reformation axiom: “Salvation by faith alone.” Martin Luther was said to have called the Letter of James “an epistle of straw” for that reason. Yet, as much as we might admire Luther’s determination to make grace and salvation by faith the centerpiece of his theology, we cannot so cavalierly dismiss one of the canonical books of the Bible. If we maintain, as I think we must, that the whole of scripture witnesses faithfully to the person and work of Jesus, then James must be heard on his own terms. It will not do for us to domesticate, edit and interpret him into silence.

Context matters when trying to understand voices coming to us from the past. We need to know something of the audience to which James and Luther addressed themselves and the world in which they moved. Luther’s theology, preaching and teaching were shaped by the late medieval European society into which he was born and the church which exercised pervasive influence over government, education and commerce. Luther inherited from his church the image of God as an angry judge intolerant of the slightest infraction against his law. Christ’s work of salvation from the terrible wrath of God was purely transactional. It was all neatly explained through the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement.” At the risk of oversimplifying this deeply held and time honored explanation of Christ’s work, it goes something like this: God is good, holy and cannot abide sin. God created human beings who, regrettably, sinned and fell from his good graces. God, being loving as well as holy, would like to forgive us. But God cannot exercise such forgiveness without compromising God’s holiness. Only by making atonement for our sin can we find our way back into God’s good graces-something that is quite beyond our capabilities. But what if God were to become human? What if God in human form were to take upon God’s self the punishment we deserve, paving the way to reconciliation? Bingo! Problem solved. Jesus dies on the cross in our place taking the punishment we deserve and that satisfies God’s need to punish sin while enabling God to receive us back again.[1]

But how do we appropriate this forgiveness? According to the medieval theology in which Luther was raised, you “do what is within you and God in Christ will do the rest.” Sounds good, until you realize how difficult it is to know whether you actually have done all that is within you. Was I the best father I could have been to my children? Did I really study as hard as I could have for the test? Am I being the best person I am capable of being today? These were the questions that tormented young Luther as he sought to find the face of a gracious God in the teachings of a church proclaiming an angry deity and salvation that was uncertain at best. Through his study of the scriptures, Luther finally came to reject the notion that God’s love and salvation must be earned through our “doing our part.” Salvation, Luther declared, is God’s work from beginning to end. Because of what Jesus accomplished for us in his sacrificial death, we need only trust God’s promise made in baptism that we are loved, forgiven and made God’s children.

So now what? According to Luther, our liberation from fear of an angry God and the tyranny of God’s impossibly difficult commands frees us to live thankfully, joyfully and obediently as God’s beloved children obeying the law no longer in fear of God’s wrath but out of gratitude for God’s grace in the service of our neighbors. Nonetheless, the place of “good works” and personal transformation (“sanctification”) has always been a source of conflict and consternation among Lutherans and other protestants. We fear that any discussion of sanctification, growth in faith and moral discipline will undermine our proclamation of salvation by grace alone and take us back into the error of “works righteousness.” Yet we cannot but recognize that our preaching of salvation as God’s exclusive work apart from any contribution on our part, without more, doesn’t quite tell the whole story. The millions of babies we baptize each year whose parents have little or no involvement in the church and who never again darken our doors more than suggests that something is lacking in our faith and practice. Perhaps we Lutherans need to pay more attention to James. He might have something important to teach us.

James is no stranger to God’s free grace and forgiveness. Recall how he told us in last week’s reading that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17. God does not need or want a bloody sacrifice of any kind in exchange for forgiving sinners. God does that because God loves us. There is no “debt” that must be repaid before God can forgive. That concept is the residue of “substitutionary atonement” doctrine discussed above. Jesus’ death on the cross is not the settlement of indebtedness. Rather, it is the ultimate triumph of “mercy over judgment” in which God’s capacity for love and forgiveness proves victorious over our hatred expressed in the ultimate injury we are capable of inflicting on God. See my post of March 1, 2015 for more on that topic.

Another misconception inherent in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is its tendency to “individualize” salvation. That is to say, salvation becomes a transactional affair between the individual woman or man and God. Salvation is equated with individual belief in Jesus and church membership. James tells us something quite different. “In fulfilment of [God’s] own purpose,” says James, “[God] gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of [God’s] creatures.” James 1:18. Salvation, as John 3:16 tells us, is for the “world” and all of God’s creatures. To be baptized and incorporated into the church is become a sign, a proclamation, a witness and the “first fruits” of God’s gentle reign of love destined finally for the whole world. God has no interest in salvaging a few souls from a sinking ship. God is determined to save the ship. Moreover, God is quite capable of doing that without our help. Nonetheless, God graciously invites us to take part in this good work. As Luther tells us in his Small Catechism, “God’s kingdom comes without our prayers (and without anything else we do), but we pray that it may come among us.” That is to say, we want to be “in that number when the saints come marching in,” not mere spectators sitting on the curb watching the parade go by.

To sum up, saying good works are necessary is not the same as saying they are necessary in order for God to save us. To say salvation is exclusively God’s work by grace from beginning to end does not imply that good works are unnecessary. It is precisely because we are free from having to placate God that we can focus our religion[2] on “care for orphans and widows in their distress.” James 1:27. Though speaking from different times, different places and different circumstances, James and Martin Luther are preaching the same good news: that Jesus calls us to a life of hope, danger, joy and suffering at the frontier of a new creation. “Our faith,” says Luther, “is a living, busy, active, mighty thing.” It is anything but dead and devoid of action.

Here’s a poem by Harriet Monroe offering us a glimpse into what this living, busy, active and mighty faith might resemble.

Heroes of Peace

“There must be prisoners,” he said,
“And some of them get killed.”
He was one of those adventurers
Who have dared the things they willed.

There must be pioneers-my mind
Called the long roll of dead
Who died to lead us on, who broke
Our trail wild miles ahead.

Poisoned by deadly germs they died,
They fell from the sky in flames.
In tropic jungles, in arctic ice
They lie-we forget their names.

In every sea their singing souls
Rise to the crest of the wave.
In every land their banners flie-
From many an unmarked grave.

They took the leap, and bade us follow
Into the starry stream-
Heroes who did the impossible,
Dreamers who lived the dream.

Source: Poetry, October 1929. Harriot Monroe (1860-1936) was founder and editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  She was born in Chicago and read at an early age. Her father’s large library fed her insatiable curiosity and love for verse. Monroe graduated from the Visitation Academy of Georgetown, D.C., in 1879 and published a number of poems thereafter. In 1912 she convinced one hundred prominent Chicago business leaders to sponsor the magazine Poetry by each committing to fifty dollars a year for a five-year subscription. This money, along with her own funds, launched the publication that continues to this day. Monroe was determined that her publication be a portal for aspiring talent.  “Open Door will be the policy of this magazine” she wrote. “…may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors . . . desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” You can learn more about Harriot Monroe and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

[1] Perhaps I am being a tad flippant here. There are articulate defenders of this doctrine who would point out that I am oversimplifying and caricaturing their positions. That is probably true. Guilty as charged. Nevertheless, this is how the preaching of substitutionary atonement comes across to most people. It either makes God into a mean spirited, rule obsessed ogre who will have his pound of flesh, or into a helpless middle manager stuck enforcing rules over which he has no independent jurisdiction. The death of Jesus, in the most horrible, painful and humiliating way imaginable, is necessary to remove some legal or metaphysical impediment to God’s forgiveness.

[2] My daughter, the classics professor, pointed out to me last night that the Greek word translated “religion” in this text is used only in James’ letter and nowhere else in the New Testament. The only Old Testament use is in the apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon, found in the Septuagint (Greek Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). (Chapter 14). In this chapter, which discusses the origin of idol worship, the author has this to say:

“Then the ungodly custom, grown strong with time, was kept as a law, and at the command of monarchs carved images were worshipped. When people could not honor monarchs in their presence, since they lived at a distance, they imagined their appearance far away, and made a visible image of the king whom they honored, so that by their zeal they might flatter the absent one as though present.” Wisdom of Solomon 14:16-17.

This passage, which discusses the practice of worshiping emperors and monarchs as divine, describes to a tee the imperial cult constituting the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was in the shadow of such religion and under the threat of punishment for all who challenged it that James describes a radically different sort of religion focused not on the worship of monarchs, but on service to widows and orphans.