First Lesson: Song of Songs 2: 8-13
Responsive Reading: Psalm 45: 1-2, 6-9
Second Lesson: James 1: 17-27
Gospel Lesson: Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
I want to begin this morning by telling a conversion story only it isn’t a typical conversion story. This conversion story centers on roast beef. You see about four years ago, I was small and weak. I weighed less than I did in Middle School which for most people would be a happy thing, only it wasn’t. My energy levels were always dragging, and I was perpetually hungry. I ate everything that I thought I was supposed to eat: lean meats, whole grains, fruits, the occasional vegetable, no soda, and never any dessert. I was scared of having any fat in my diet because of the potential consequences that might come with it. Butter would have been a rare treat reserved for holidays. Then I started reading; I was reading voices that contradicted everything that I had previously thought. So I decided to make a complete 180 in my diet. I adopt a philosophy that I hold to this day that a person can never eat too much fat especially saturated fat in their diet. Some positive things start to happen to me. I start increasing my bench press in the weight room and take this as evidence the diet is working. So maybe a month or so after changing my former ways, I go with a group of Confirmation students to an all-you-could-eat brunch. This brunch would be a dream for me: prime rib, steak, sausage, bacon, butter that I could eat to my heart’s content. The day was glorious! One of the kids that day was named Cookie. Cookie wanted to drink orange juice with his meal. Cookie asked what I thought about drinking orange juice?
Now remember, sometimes the new preachers are the most radical preachers. The Apostle Paul was the most radical preacher of grace because it went against the ways of his former home. So I decided I would be a radical preacher on this day. I told Cookie that orange juice is worse for you than pop because of the fructose sugar content being so high. One of the other chaperons was a Nurse Practitioner who thought I sounded like a nut when I was espousing all this stuff. Why was I so extreme? Recent converts tend to be the most passionate about following their beliefs, but they also tend to occasionally blinded because of the fervor of their perspective. I’ll get back to Cookie and the orange juice in a little bit.
Today, I want to look at one book of the Bible in the Book of James. What should you know about the Book of James is that Martin Luther didn’t like the Book of James. Luther considered James to be the “epistle of straw”. Luther didn’t like the Book of James because he saw it as being in direct contrast to the Book of Romans which he considered the most important book in the New Testament. If Romans was the book of gold then James could be burned away never to be heard from again.
What made James so bad for Luther? Luther kept hearing the famous verse from James over and over again “Faith without works is dead”. Luther had problems with this verse. Luther had struggled for years and years with the meaning of this verse. Luther had spent nights sleeping on concrete floors hoping it would motivate him to do better in his faith. Luther spent years believing that his faith was dead because of all the good that he had failed to do. One night Luther is reading from the Book of Romans when he finally discovers a word of liberation from his previous struggles.
Romans 1:17 “The righteous shall live by faith.”
I want you to think about Luther’s attitude towards the Book of James this way. 1998, I go away to Concordia College in Moorhead. I wasn’t going to have to go to bed at any particular time. I could eat whatever I wanted. No one was going to ask me any questions about “Where I was going?” or “When might I return?” Newfound freedom all sounds great for a little while until you finally come home and are dealing with the same parents that raise you. You quickly get offended if one of your parents dares ask you where you were at 2 AM the previous night. My worst college homecoming behavior was one time getting mad at my sister Anne because one of her friends had the gall to call at 5 in the afternoon when I was taking a nap.
Whenever old ways of life and new ways of life collide there is going to be conflict. In the 1960’s this would have taken place when a child returns home to proclaim to his World War II serving father to say that he is morally opposed to all war. At this point, there is going to be some inevitable conflict.
So back to the Book of James. Paul’s letters make up the majority of the New Testament. Paul’s letters talk about sin, grace, law, Gospel and drive home the heart of the Christian message that “There is nothing you can do to earn salvation because Jesus won salvation for you.” Paul’s writing is all great stuff! I want to preach Paul every Sunday because of it.
The people that heard this in the early church thought it was good stuff! People in the early church had grown up believing as evidenced by today’s gospel lesson that if you don’t wash your hands the proper and holy way, then you’re not a child of God.
So when people began to hear Paul’s message of freedom they began to take it to extremes. The church in Thyatira had all sorts of sexual immorality, the church in Corinth had all kinds of drunkenness and if you read through the Book of Jude you see all kinds of problems of poor behavior that permeated the New Testament church.
To illustrate this concept, let’s reflect on teenage binge drinking. Europe tends to be a lot more lax about laws regarding teenage drinking than the United States. Many European children grow up with the idea where there is little in the way of a fixed drinking age. European children tend to drink quite a bit but in many countries they have half the rate of excess binge drinking that they do in the United States. A study came out a few years ago which described US Teens as among the highest offenders of drug use and binge drinking in the western world even though both are strictly illegal. As the story of Adam and Eve reminds us, there is such a thing as a forbidden fruit effect. So when people in James’ day kept hearing “grace, grace, grace” along with no stern commandments that a Christian need to do. They revealed in their previously forbidden fruits to excess.
Back to when I first went away to college at Concordia. I thought it was great. I could stay up till 2-3 AM and still go to class in the morning. I could eat or drink whatever I wanted with no one to tell me “no”. Moorhead was one of the few places with 24-hour pizza delivery. Total freedom all sounded so good until I realized nearly a decade later how unhealthy all my liberated habits had become. If I have one, major, regret in my life it’s that I wasted so many years of my life trying to get it all together. I wish I had realized the harm in my actions sooner. Many people will probably name similar periods in their life where they failed to understand how their freedom can have unpleasant consequences.
Back to the Book of James. James is a reaction against extremes. The idea that if there is no such thing as law or judgment then the good times can just keep rolling on.
One of the big news stories this week has to do with Ashley Madison.com which is a website that seeks to provide the means and connections for married individuals to carry out affairs. Hackers revealed Ashley Madison had 36 Million registered users. Every zip code in the United States but three had someone that was a member of Ashley Madison. This list gets publicly revealed all sorts of destruction takes place: marriages and families collapse and individuals even take their own lives. The issue with Ashley Madison isn’t that people can’t receive forgiveness. Jesus specifically proclaimed forgiveness to a woman caught in adultery in John 8. The issue rather has to do with social mayhem caused in Ashley Madison’s fall. Now why James was written was that people shouldn’t use God’s grace as an excuse to commit bad behavior. I shouldn’t be a jerk to Bob because God has forgiven even worse jerks than me. The Gospel is not an excuse for selfishness. This is the very attitude that James seeks to address.
What can we say about Luther’s attitude about the Book of James? Luther was an emotional guy and a hothead. Luther also wrote a ton of stuff. Luther was the type of guy who you would probably want to keep off Facebook when he got into a bad mood. Luther’s overall concern was “What is the Gospel?” or “What promotes Christ?” Luther was absolutely correct in his ability to assess the main issues. Luther wasn’t wrong, when he held that James could be abused.
I knew a lady whose named was Catherine. Catherine grew up Presbyterian. Catherine said the minister nearly every Sunday would preach on the Book of James. The Minister was able to use James to point out all the flaws in individual congregation member’s lives. The issue with this minister isn’t whether what he’s saying is true or not (it probably is) Christians will fall short, the issue with obsessing over the Book of James is that it misses the bigger point. Our obsession should be clearly defining the Gospel. We must clearly define God’s rescue from a world racked with sin. Sin always brings brokenness, sin always brings pain, and the Gospel seeks to liberate us from our fall. The idea that James is trying to rebel against is the idea that because of the Gospel that our lives don’t matter. Our actions have the potential to wreck lives beyond our lives of which the Gospel is no justification for defending.
At the same time, we remember the words of Isaiah 64:6 this morning that “All our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.”-Isaiah 64:6. We will not impress God. The point of James is to protect us against our worst instincts, not to inspire us to reach God’s presence. James isn’t seeking to encourage us to bring more to God’s table. James is rather saying that God’s generosity isn’t an excuse to purposely throw plates on the floor.
I want to admit something this morning. I will admit it to Cookie Price and Nurse Practitioner Julie Kircher. I was wrong about orange juice. While I wouldn’t keep orange juice in the house, it does provide vitamins and minerals that are helpful when consumed in moderation. My second confession is that as much as I enjoy saturated fat bonanzas it is probably of benefit to my digestive system to throw in a salad every once in a while.
The point of the Gospel is that while it can reach the worst of sinners, it doesn’t seek to give sinners permission to commit the most heinous of sins. While converts are always passionate about the liberating new way in which they view the world. The old guard always needs to try to keep converts in check against the worst of our own bad behavior.
 Markquart, Ed. “James, True Religion, and the Real Thing”. Sermons from Seattle. Pentecost 13 B. Web. Aug.25.2015.
 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15,21-23.
 Revelation 2:18-29
 1st Corinthians 11:21
 This comes from a 2012 study in The Lancet medical journal found in a Daily Mail Web article published on Apr.25.2012.
 Brewer, Todd. “James, an ‘Epistle of Straw?’ Not So Fast!” Mockingbird (MBIRD). 26.Mar.2015. Web. Aug.24.2015
 McAlone, Nathan. “There were only 3 zip codes without any Ashley Madison accounts. Yahoo Finance. 25.Aug.2015. Web. Aug.26.2015.