The Seder and the Supper

There are two basic questions that we can take to the Scriptures any time we read them, no matter what the passage, no matter what the circumstances. Two questions that any Book of the Bible, any Psalm, any author, somehow addresses. Two questions that we will probably return to several times as we go through the next several months, as we follow the story arc of the Bible from the Creation in Genesis through the Day of Pentecost in Acts. There are lots of other questions that the Bible can help answer, some big and some small. But these are the two basic questions that I think we can rely on Scripture to offer insight on: Who is God? and Who are we? A single passage of the Bible can’t offer us a complete answer to these questions. Heck, the whole Bible can’t offer us a complete answer to these questions. Who God is can’t be nailed down like that, because a part of who God is, is mystery. For that matter, who we are can’t be nailed down like that, because a part of who we are, perhaps the part of us made in God’s image, is mystery, too. And on both counts, that’s a good thing. Because mystery leads us to seek. It reminds us that there is more than our own knowledge, more than our own views, more than our own perspective. It, like everything else, is a gift.

But there is something to be learned, or perhaps to be remembered, in looking at today’s texts and asking these questions. Who is God? And Who are we? Let’s start by asking Exodus Who is God?

One way that Exodus answers this question is through the person of Pharaoh. Last week, when we left the family of Israel/Jacob, they were enjoying the protection of the Pharaoh, due to the good will of their brother Joseph. He was second-in-command to Pharaoh, because he saved the land of Egypt from a terrible famine. At the end of Genesis, we are told that Joseph and his brothers and all their families settled in Egypt, and planned to wait there until God brought them back to the promised land. As far as we can tell, throughout Joseph’s life, they were taken care of, and when Joseph died, Genesis tells us, he was embalmed and placed in a coffin, according to the Egyptian custom. Things seem pretty good for the Israelites at that point. But Exodus opens to a different story. After Joseph and his whole generation died, the Israelites remained in Egypt and flourished. Exodus says that “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.”

The problem came when a new Pharaoh arose, one who did not know Joseph. And, as we will learn, this Pharaoh was ruled more by fear and power than by concern for the land of Egypt or his people. Out of fear, he enslaved the Israelites. Eventually, his fear was so great that he resorted to violence. And he made all of his people complicit in his violence. He commanded all of Egypt to kill every boy born to the Hebrews by throwing them into the Nile.

Well, you know the story. You’ve seen the Yule Brenner/Charlton Heston movie. In spite of
the command to kill the Hebrew babies, Heston, I mean Moses, grows up in Pharaoh’s household, and is eventually called by God to lead the people out of captivity. And it is this same fearful, power-blinded Pharaoh who decides that he will go head-to-head with God. Now, as you may know, in ancient Egypt, Pharaoh was set up as a God, revered as a deity alongside all the other gods of Egypt. And that is what the next part of the story is really about. 9 plagues, 9 chances for Pharaoh to prove himself. Blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, all giving the god Pharaoh the chance to show that he could and would save his people. And time and again, he shows himself to be less interested in saving his land and his people, and more interested in maintaining control, in holding on to power at any cost. Even his officials are sick of him! After the plague of locusts, they beg him to give up: “How long shall this fellow be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the LORD their God; do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” And Pharaoh still doesn’t get it.

And that is the answer that this story gives to the question of Who is God? God is not Pharaoh. God is not power-hungry or greedy. God does not work out of fear. Pharaoh is everything that God is not. Pharaoh enslaves. Pharaoh destroys. Pharaoh fears.

And the 10th plague comes, and the people are freed. And we see the truth: if Pharaoh enslaves and destroys and fears, God brings freedom, and justice, and new life, new beginnings.

The Passover Seder includes 10 drops of wine, taken from our cup of celebration, in sympathy for the suffering of the Egyptians during the 10 plagues.

Now, I know that it is hard for us to hear, this 10th plague. It is hard to hear this story of God sending the angel of death into all the land of Egypt, striking down all the firstborn. It’s hard to hear this as a story of freedom and even harder to hear it as a story of creation. But think what it means to hear this if you are in captivity; if you are a people in slavery. Think what it means to hear this if you are a people whose sons have been thrown in the Nile. Think what it means for the Israelites.

Which brings us to the second question: Who are we?

And the answer that Exodus gives us, the answer that we get over and over again throughout scriptures is the same answer that we ourselves said just a few minutes ago when we said together the public confession: we are a people who are in bondage, and cannot free ourselves.

The people of Israel are enslaved by a false god. They are captive to his fear and his violence and his greed. They are in bondage. And they cannot free themselves. Even if they could somehow rise up and free themselves, even if they could somehow resist, it would have to be violence against violence. It would have to be by becoming like their oppressor. It would mean setting themselves in the place of God, just as Pharaoh has tried to do.

And so God does what they cannot. God takes the burden from them. The violence that comes, comes from God, and it returns the sins of the Egyptians back to them. It’s not pretty, and it’s not comfortable, and I would rather not have to preach on this part of the story. But I want you to hear the good news in it as well. It is a gift to the Israelites. It is freedom, a release from bondage, that does not require them to commit murder or seek revenge or re-engage themselves in the cycles of vengeance and warfare and retribution. It gives them a new start that is well and truly new.

And that is why they mark it every year. That is why the text in Exodus gives them instructions for the Passover meal. Participating in this meal helps them to remember who God is and what God has done for them. But perhaps even more importantly, it helps them remember the answer to the second question: who they are. It is about identity. Because they are the people whom God has freed. They are the people on whose behalf God has acted. And each time they mark the Passover and participate in this meal, they become that all over again. They participate, not just in some symbolic remembrance, but in the thing itself. Each person at the Seder table, whether in the first generation or the thousandth, has been brought up by God out of Egypt out of the house of slavery. The tangible participation in the meal is more than a symbol of God’s identity. It is a reminder to the people of their own identity.

It’s the same for us. Who are we? We are captive, and we cannot free ourselves. Our captivity is perhaps less literal. As far as I know, none of us here have experienced literal slavery. But we are captive. Captive to the false gods of fear, power, greed. Captive to cycles of violence and recrimination and blame. Captive to our own inner demons and to the outer powers and principalities of the world. You alone know exactly how you are captive. But it is our confession. We say we are captive to sin, and what we mean is all these things and more, all the ways that we do not feel free to choose a new path, a new beginning, a new way of being. And that is what we offer up to God each week, even each day.

So Who is God? God is the one who takes all of that. And who frees. God is the God of creation, and of justice, and of redemption. The God of reconciliation, and of deliverance, and of resurrection. God is the One who comes into the world to know us and to be us and to hold us, and God is the One who takes all of those things that hold us captive, and carries them all up onto the cross, and then down into the grave. So that we can be born anew each and every day, made whole, not by our own doing, but by the God who does what we cannot do. Sets us free.

And Who are we? We are those whom God calls to participate again each and every week, when we gather at this table, and partake in this meal. It is reminiscent of the Jewish Passover, though it has its differences. But like the Passover, it is more than a symbol. It is a participation in what God has done for us. And the tangible participation in God’s identity becomes a reminder to us of our own. Because we are the people that God has freed. We are the people for whom God has died. We are. You are. And you are invited to participate again, in what God has given and shed. For you.

Kurt Vonnegut and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

I once saw the author Kurt Vonnegut give a lecture on the shape of story. This is another version of what I saw:

I think this is really helpful for us as we read the Bible, since so much of the Bible is story. In fact, though not everything in the Bible is written in a narrative, story-telling format, taken as a whole, the Bible is nothing more nor less than the story of God, told through the eyes of humans. It is a human story, with all of the trials and tribulations found in each human’s story; with all of the flaws and imperfections found in each human; with all of the misunderstandings and miscommunications found in each human relationship. And then again, it is God’s story, the story of how God is at work in and through each human, even though, or perhaps because, we have all of those trials and tribulations, flaws and imperfections, misunderstandings and miscommunications.

So I’m going to add another line to the chart here. In fact, I’ll just start a new chart, it’ll be easier to see. This is the line of Genesis. Start with Adam and Eve, way up at the top.

  • the Fall (down)
  • God makes a promise and sets them up to make a living (up a bit)
  • Cain & Abel (down)
  • Tower of Babel (down)
  • the Flood (down)
  • Reboot! Abraham! (up)
    • no child (down)
  • Isaac! (up)
    • which child? (down)
  • Jacob/Israel! (up)
    • too many children!

And now the narrative slows way down. We’ve just zipped through the first 2400 years of human history, as the Bible tells it, in 36 chapters, and now we’ll spend the rest of Genesis, another 14 chapters, telling just the story of Joseph. Because the fate of Joseph determines the fate all of Israel, that is, all of the children of Jacob/Israel.

What we read today, the excerpts from Genesis, are just the beginning and the end of the story. But the shape of the whole story is important, so I’m going to add that to the chart, too. Which gives me the chance for a recap.

Joseph is, as we have heard, his father’s favorite son. At age 17, his father marks him for

Why does Joseph always look like a refugee from a Grateful Dead parking lot scene in these pictures?

favor by giving him a pretty robe, which doesn’t sound so bad, but a robe with long sleeves means that it’s awful hard to do any manual labor, which means that Joseph gets to sit around dreaming his dreams while his brothers do all the work. Not really the way to win friends and influence people, but at 17, maybe Joseph has not learned the ways of family politics yet, and so he rubs it in their faces, telling them all about his dreams. “I dreamed that you would all one day bow down to me!” Well, his brothers were not exactly thrilled, and they plotted revenge. First they planned to kill him, but eventually settled on just selling him into slavery. Which was apparently the kinder, gentler option in their minds. So they sell him to their cousins, the Ishmaelites. Definitely a down moment for Joseph. The Ishmaelites take him to Egypt, and sell him to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. While there, Joseph captures the attention of Potiphar, and rises to become the overseer of his house. So, that moves toward good fortune. However, he also caught the attention of Potiphar’s wife, who liked him a little too much, and when he refused her advances, she told Potiphar that Joseph had insulted her. And Potiphar threw Joseph into prison. While in prison, he gained the favor of the chief jailer, who gave him responsibilities and a measure of freedom. Up again. After a while, two of Pharaoh’s servants are put in prison, and they learn of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. He helps them, and interprets their dreams correctly, and when they are released, he expects to be released. But he is forgotten, and remains in prison. Eventually, Pharaoh himself has dreams that need interpreting, and Joseph is remembered. He is brought to Pharaoh, and wins Pharaoh’s favor, and eventually is made Pharaoh’s second in command. Things look good for Joseph.

This is the shape of Joseph’s story. Really, it is the shape of the whole Biblical story. Because it is the shape of all of our stories. We like the stories of boy-meets-girl, and man-falls-in-a-well, and Cinderella, some people even like the stories of Kafka and Sartre. But most of us don’t live stories like that. Most of us live stories that look a lot more like Joseph’s. Some ups, some downs; some trials and tribulations; some flaws and imperfections; some miscommunications and misunderstandings. Real lives. Lives that are marked by joys and celebrations, births and loves and triumphs and successes, all of which push us up toward the Good. And lives that are scarred by brokenness, pain, griefs – broken relationships, illnesses, losses, pushing our story line down. We live life between these extremes, some days we live life at both of these extremes, celebrating even as we grieve. This is the shape of the Bible, because this is the shape of our stories, and the Bible is a human document, written by real people who lived real lives.

What happens to those of us caught in these cycles of ups and downs, is that we begin to live as if they were the only option. As if the ups and downs of the past were all that there could be for the future. And we get caught. Caught in cycles of dysfunction; cycles of recrimination and revenge; cycles of violence and greed and anger; or cycles of despair and destruction and disappointment.

And this is where Joseph’s story deviates, and shows us the way that God intervenes, and changes the shape of our story. Joseph is second in command to Pharaoh. He is in charge of all of Egypt, and has control of all the wealth and all the food of the land. And when famine comes to his homeland, the land of Canaan, his brothers are sent by Jacob to find food. They come to Egypt looking to buy grain from Pharaoh to bring home, but they don’t recognize Pharaoh’s second in command, their brother Joseph. Joseph, however, recognizes them. And he seems to see a chance for revenge. He begins to repeat the cycle – he throws them into prison, condemns them as spies, and basically sets them up to be made victims themselves. Eventually, Joseph stashes his own cup in his brother’s sack, so that he can accuse them of stealing. For those of us who are hearing this story, those of us who live in the ups and downs, we know how it goes. The brothers are talking among themselves, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” And we think, “yeah, so what if he does? you guys deserve it, after all.” And so we watch and wait, while Joseph gets his revenge, the brothers suffer, and the story ends with comeuppance…And it is satisfying, as far as a story goes, but in real life, we know, revenge is bittersweet. No one is happy for long, because we are caught in the cycle, repeating accusation, injury, and revenge, until we are ruled by the sins of the past, and the sins of the fathers become the sins of the sons, and we are re-fighting wars long since over, suffering for damage done long ago. This is what sin does to us – it haunts us, making us feel unforgiveable, unworthy, unfit for anything but this repeated cycle of destruction. When we are faced with our past, we feel ourselves to be ripe for revenge, deserving of punishment, entitled to nothing but wrath and regret.

And if the Bible were just a storybook, a novel, a human tale, the story might continue that way, or give us some false sense of hope, leading us to believe that we can solve this cycle by repeating this cycle, leading us to believe that there is such a thing as happily ever after, or that revenge will satisfy us, or that we can pull ourselves out of the quagmire of sin, the cycle of ups and downs. But there is more to this story than just the ups and downs. So, yes, this is a human story. But it is also God’s story. And God’s story is is a story about forgiveness. It is a story about reconciliation, about new life, about resurrection.

And so, through Joseph – broken, flawed, grieving, sometimes kind of dumb, perhaps a bit vengeful, probably misunderstood, certainly mistreated Joseph – through this man, God works out a new ending. An ending that features forgiveness, not vengeance. The building of a nation, not the tearing apart of a family. A new beginning, not recrimination. Reconciliation. Renewal. Resurrection.

That is the shape of God’s story. It is a story that takes the past and sets it aside. Balls it up and throws it away. It is the story of God coming into the world to know us and love us and be one of us, and instead of being received as God, Christ is crucified on a cross and goes down into the grave. And not even that story, not even the story of death overcoming life, determines the future of God’s story. God’s story can take even that, and undo it. So that no matter the shape our story has taken in the past, no matter how the highs and lows have dragged us around, have beaten us up, have taken their toll on our hearts, what happens next is a new story, a story that begins with forgiveness and healing. This is the story of Joseph, this is the story of all of Israel, and through Israel, through Jesus Christ, this is the story of all the world. In you, each and every day, this story begins again, not as a repetition of what has been, but as an anticipation of what could be. Thanks be to God.

Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Theology

I’ve been trying to get in shape lately. Over the last few months, I’ve joined weight watchers, and started going to the gym 5 days a week. I’ve signed up for classes, upped my veggies and fruits, cut way back on sweets, even stopped putting sugar in my coffee. Now, I’ve done this sort of thing before. I am no stranger to diet programs. I admit I am more of a stranger to the gym. Exercise has never really been my thing. I’m not telling you this to draw attention to myself or fish for compliments. I’m telling you this because of the reasons that I have been doing this. It’s because I want to be healthy and active as I age. It’s because I want to hike the Appalachian Trail someday. It’s because I want to travel the world with my children and my grandchildren. It’s because the future is calling to me, and the future that I want to live into requires a healthy body. And I know that this metaphor will break down before the end of this sermon, but for now, let’s work with this: The future makes a difference. now.

Let’s take a philosophical moment to talk about causality. In general, we tend to think about cause and effect as a linear thing. First A, then B. I stumble, then I fall down. My kid ignores her homework, then she gets a bad grade. I exercise, then I lose weight. But it’s not really that simple. Yes, first A, then B. But also, there was whatever drove A to happen in the first place, and then there’s outside factors, like the weather, or peer pressure. And then there’s the future. Because, in spite of our usual way of thinking about things, the future is at work in the present. The right now is influenced by what will happen. The easiest example of this is the acorn. It is an acorn because it fell from an oak tree. But it is also an acorn because it will grow into an oak tree. Whatever happens to it between now and then, it is being drawn toward a future as an oak tree. Of course, with human beings, it’s not so simple as that. It’s not cut and dry. It’s wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. 

Imagine you are a man living about 4000 years ago, in Ur of the Chaldeans. That’s over in the Middle East, in the vicinity of Iraq. You’re about 75 years old, married, but with no children. And God comes to you and tells you to pick up and move, leave most everyone you know, and follow this promise. Sounds iffy to me, but it’s a pretty big promise: “I will make of you a great nation; I will make your name great; I will bless you and those who bless you; and through you all the world will be blessed.” Is it enough? Is it enough of a promise to make you follow? Would you leave everything, take your wife, and head out into the unknown?

It seems to have been enough for Abram. God said, “Go,” and off he went. This is the future effecting the present. Promises make a difference. Even if you don’t believe them, they change you. Because a promise has a way of pulling you forward, of changing your expectations. For Abram, that promise, that future that God was calling him into, it was drawing him forward more than the past was pushing him. But if you read chapter 12, you may notice, we are never told that Abram believed the promise. Just that it moved him.

Maybe that’s because it takes a while to get your head wrapped around the future. Like I said, I’ve dieted before. I’ve even exercised before. A little. But something about this last year, something about turning 40, shifted things for me. The future became a little more solid, a little more grasp-able. I began to see how what I do now could effect the future, and the future began to effect what I do now. See? Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.

For Abram, it took a while. The promise came to him in chapter 12 of Genesis. For the sake of the narrative, let’s take a look at that. Chapters 1&2 tell us about the Creation, and then pose the problem of Creation: it doesn’t tend to live up to the perfection it was created for. It’s broken. And for the next 9 chapters, we see example after example of that: Cain & Abel; Noah and the flood; the tower of Babel. Creation is broken, and the problem is huge, because it’s the whole world, but it’s also very very small, because it is each individual. Each individual has brokenness and cracks in us, and because of that, we each forget who we are, and we fail to live up to the image of God that has been formed into each of us. And because it is a huge problem, and also a very very small one, God devises a huge solution, in a very very small way. God picks one individual, and through that one individual, that one broken person, with all his flaws and cracks, God will bless that whole huge broken world. That’s the promise that Abram receives in chapter 12. “I will make of you a great nation; I will make your name great; I will bless you and those who bless you; and through you all the world will be blessed.” That’s the promise that draws Abram forward.

And yet, Abram is just as broken as each one of us. And a promise is not exactly tradable goods. It’s hard to keep ahold of a promise. And it’s even harder to imagine that you are not in control of the promise. It’s basic logic; it’s linear causality. If I do this now, then my future will look like this. If I go to the gym and eat my veggies, then I will be healthy and happy and able to hike the Appalachian Trail. If I obey God and please God and come up with an heir, then God will like me and make me a great nation. You can see why Abram would be thinking this way. And so, for the next 5 chapters, Abram and Sarai set about trying to make God’s promise happen. Which doesn’t really work. Because this is where my exercise metaphor breaks down. God’s promise is not a brokered deal. The more Abram and Sarai try to make it happen, the less likely it seems to us the readers. First they go down to Egypt, where Sarai becomes part of Pharaoh’s harem. Then there’s the whole Sodom & Gemorrah kerfuffle. And then there’s Sarai trying to take things into her own hands, thinking that “God helps those who help themselves.”

Quick Bible knowledge quiz: Where in the Bible is that phrase, “God helps those who help themselves?” I’ll give you a moment to think on it. Give up? Nowhere. It was Ben Franklin who said that, not Scripture. What God does, is promises. Not bargains. Promises. God has promised Abram and Sarai that they will be a great nation. God has promised them that they will be blessed, and that through their being blessed, they will become a blessing to the whole world. This is a promise. Not a linear causality. All they have to do, is to live as if it were true. 

That’s where today’s reading comes in. This is, I think, the moment when Abram finally gets it. When the promise finally sinks in. This is the moment when it takes ahold of him, when he realizes that this is not a bargain, that God’s is not some self-help program, like my exercise and diet future, but a promise. And we are finally told, in verse 6, that Abram believed. And it is when he and Sarai finally really believe this promise, it is when this promise finally really grabs them and yanks them forward, that it changes who they are. So that in chapter 17, they become Abraham and Sarah, identified by the promise now, identified by the future that they are being drawn into, rather than by the past that pushes them forward. Causality. It’s wibbly-wobbly.

And that is where we come in. We have a promise. We have been blessed by the blessing of Abraham, by the great nation that came from him. Because that promise 4000 years ago points for us Christians directly to the promise of Jesus Christ, the descendent of Abraham through whom the world has been blessed, and is being blessed, and will be blessed. We have received a promise and God is busy drawing us forward into that promise, the promise of new life, of healing, of reconciliation, of resurrection. The promise that all things are being made new each and every moment.

And who can blame us if we have a tendency to doubt that promise? Abram himself doubted it. All evidence was to the contrary, there was no child, and the promise seemed to require a child, and he doubted God’s promise, until finally he couldn’t stand it anymore and blurted out, “C’mon, God! What is your deal?!”

We are like Abram, dubious, doubtful, suspicious, wondering exactly what is required of us to make this promise come true. We talk about the promised future that God has for the world. And all evidence is to the contrary. The world continues to look like the same broken place, people continue to starve, wars continue to rage. We talk about the preferred and promised future that God has for Peace Lutheran. And then we hit hard times, and people are anxious, and money is tight, and we wonder. What is it we are supposed to do?

And we look to Abram and Sarai, and realize the truth. There is nothing that we can do to make the promise happen. It’s a promise. We don’t bring it about. It brings us along. It’s not a self-help program. It’s not God’s bargaining chip, held over our heads to force us into morality and righteousness. It’s God’s promise. It will happen. We just have to live as if it were true. To live in faith.

Today in the life of this congregation, we are rolling out the Cornerstone Campaign. In the coming days and weeks, you will be hearing about the work that we are doing, how we are trying to reduce our debt burden, and you will probably be asked to contribute to that effort, if you are a member or a regular giver here. But I want to make this exquisitely clear now, and throughout this campaign. God is at work at Peace Lutheran. God is at work in the community of Washington, MO. God is at work in the world, working through broken individuals for the sake of the whole broken world. This Cornerstone Campaign is not going to make God’s promises come true. It is not going to force God to give us a brighter future or a bigger share of the promise. That’s not the way it works.

Instead, this Cornerstone Campaign is our response. This is us, like Abram, believing the promise. This is us, like Abram, being grasped by the promise, being drawn into God’s preferred and promised future, being changed and transformed by the promise. This is us, living in faith. As if this promise were true, and were for us.

Each week, we gather here as the people of God to worship, to praise, and to hear again the promise. Each week, we gather at the Table to be fed again with the promise, to take the promise into ourselves, and to carry it out into the world as the Body of Christ. And things get wibbly-wobbly. Each week, the future that God is calling us into reaches out into our present, and it changes us. It claims us, and it grabs ahold of us, and it draws us forward into something new and renewed, into a life of reconciliation and resurrection. And at least for that moment, for that time when the promise has ahold of us, we are not driven by the past, we are not pushed by the pain or the fear or the guilt or the shame we are not beholden to the mistakes we wish we could undo. Instead we are drawn forward, pulled by a different causality, tugged into living as if this promise were true. As if this promise were for us. And the only way to believe it, is to hear it. So I will say it again. This promise is yours. You are a child of Abraham. Through Abraham’s child, Jesus, you have been named and claimed. And you are blessed, so that through you, the whole world might be blessed.

James in a Ditch (well, two ditches, actually)

Phyllis Anderson is the president and dean of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, located in the San Francisco Bay area. Before that, she was on the faculty at Seattle University, where I started my seminary education. She is a cradle Lutheran, born and raised in a solidly Lutheran household, where Lutheran theology was dinner-table conversation. She tells a story about her childhood, in which she and her sister used to wake up in the morning and look at one another, and ask, “What shall we do today?” And in response, they would say together, “Nothing! It’s already been done for us!”

And that is exactly the problem that we Lutherans often face. We have a solid, Biblical theology. It reminds us of God’s grace, given freely for each of us, claimed in our baptisms, and renewed each day. But there are two ditches to Christian theology. Road, two ditches
And we Lutherans are usually so busy avoiding the one about earning our salvation, that we fall off the other side of the road, never having seen that ditch behind us. We are so concerned that we not give the impression that there is anything that we can or should or must do, because we understand that message of Paul, summed up in Romans 3: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law,” And we point to that message in all that we teach – you are saved by grace alone, not by your works. And all the while, we’re backing up, getting ready to fall into the other ditch. But while texts like Romans form the curbstone on one side of the road, the letter of James forms the rumble strip along the other ditch. It is included in the canon, much to the dismay of many, including Luther, precisely to keep us from becoming so complacent in our passage along the road that we fall asleep and drive into the other ditch. The ditch where we wake up every morning and decide to do nothing, because it has already been done for us.

Luther may have called this letter of James an “epistle of straw” early on in his career, when he wrote that he would like to “chuck Jimmy onto the fire,” but toward the end of his life, he began to see its value, as many of his followers began to fall into the ditch behind them. Here’s an historical footnote and a new word for you: antinomian. The Antinomian controversies were (and are) the ongoing debates about exactly what role the law has in our lives as Christians, and when the Augsburg Confessions were written as a statement of faith for Lutheranism, the authors were working hard to avoid both ditches. They worked as hard against the antinomian position that would do away entirely with the law, as they did against the Roman Catholic church and others who would make the law the only path to salvation. And you only have to look at recent dialogue within our own denomination to see that these debates are not over.

James appears to be dealing with a similar situation. This letter is written to a largely Jewish Christian audience, probably one of the earliest letters that remains in the canon, to a community that traces itself to James, the brother of Jesus. The most famous verse from this letter is probably the one that was thrown out in the presidential debates a few years back: “Faith without works is dead.” And today’s passage echoes that sentiment.

James uses the image of a mirror in this passage, and that seems like a good place to start. Because we have a tendency to read the Scriptures as a mirror. We read a passage of Scripture, and we use that to reflect on ourselves. And usually, when we look into a mirror, what we are seeing is our flaws. We see the scars, the grey hairs, the wrinkles, the unwanted marks or unwanted pudge.

And that’s what we do with Scripture as well. We read a passage like this one from James, and we see ourselves reflected for a moment, and we keep the focus on ourselves, and on our own flaws. Or those of our neighbors. James says be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; and we reflect on all the times we cut off a loved one mid-speech, and made our own point at someone else’s expense. James says that true religion is to care for widows and orphans; and we reflect on all the times that we have failed to help those in need, or contributed to their distress. We read the gospel lesson, and hear Jesus scold the Pharisees; and we reflect on the ways that we are like the Pharisees, and the ways that we are better than the Pharisees. In other words, we read the Scriptures as if they were a rule book, as if they were a moral code, giving us the parameters for determining our own appearance, laying out the grounds for how we are to see ourselves. As if they were all about us.

And what we tend to see is the flaws. In Lutheran speak, what we read is the law. We make the Scriptures all about the ways that our actual reflection doesn’t fit our ideal image of ourselves. And then we turn it into a self-help book, “Your best life now.” And the Book of James gives us ample opportunity for this kind of reflection, because James spends an awful lot of time talking about what it looks like when someone claims to be a person of faith, but then fails to act that way; what it looks like when someone goes to church on Sunday, but spends their week profiting from the misfortune of others; what it looks like when someone hears the word, and maybe even speaks the word, but then does not do the word. And we are likely to walk away from James discouraged, disappointed, and despondent. For those of us who walk that thin line between works and grace, we, like Luther, may begin to feel that James’ demand for works is overwhelming, and that there is no way that we could live up to such expectations. That the ideal and the reality are too far apart. We try to live the life of faith, we try to do the good works, but we can never seem to figure out when enough is enough, and every time we look in the mirror, all we can see is the flaws, even after all of the work that we’ve done, all we can see is what’s still not right. It’s like Joan Rivers or Anna Nicole Smith – the mirror never shows us the perfection that we seek, only the defects that detract.

But of course, the Bible was written more as a description of God, than as a reflection of ourselves. In fact, the first thing that the Scriptures tell us about ourselves is the truth about our reflection, the one true thing that we should see we look in the mirror – we, you, me, each one of us, were created in the image and likeness of God. That is the truth that the Scriptures reflect to us, that is the truth that James is trying to get across. That is the truth that we regularly ignore, in favor of the toddler method, the “I can do it myself” approach to making the mirror match the ideal. The truth that God is the giver of all good things, that every generous act, every perfect gift, every act of kindness and goodness and healing, every moment of reconciliation and redemption, every tiny little resurrection moment, that is a gift from God. And that is what is indelibly implanted within each and every one of us, what is at the very core of our being. That is what God names and claims in us in the waters of baptism. That is what we take into ourselves, each and every week at this altar rail, as we ingest the Word of God, and it is implanted in us afresh.

But we forget. We are forgetful people, and we have a tendency to forget the good that has been implanted in us, the Word that we have chewed up and swallowed and made a part of ourselves. We forget that reflection on us, almost as soon as we leave the altar. We look in the mirror and see our flaws, how we sin and fall short, and we forget that we have been given an image of God, a heart of love, a core of compassion and kindness. We forget who we truly and deeply are; we forget that we have been named and claimed by God in Christ, and empowered to be Christ in the world; we forget that we are the image of God pressed into the world, and that our lives are the image of God with us, that our lives are Emmanuel!

And when we forget who we are, we lose sight of what we do. When we forget what we have been given, we forget to give. When we forget how we have been heard, we forget to listen. When we forget how we have been freed, we forget to free others. This is the ditch that James is warning us of. James is not encouraging us to believe that if only we would behave, we would receive salvation. It is not an admonition of those who wake up in the morning knowing that everything has been done for them. But it is a call to action. It is a call to wake up in the morning, knowing that everything has been done for you, and then go out and live as if that were true! It is a call to recognize the gifts and the power that have been granted to you, and to live as if you truly were the impression of God in the world.

St. Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said, “Always preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” It is a perfect summation of the Book of James. Actions preach as loudly as words. Louder, really. Part of being made in God’s image is that other people know it, too. They know that I am an image of God, even if they’ve never heard it said. And if I am complacent, if I fail to give of myself, of my resources, of my heart, of my wallet, people will know it. And they will think that perhaps that is what God is like. And if I talk about God as loving and generous, and fail to act that way myself, others will suspect that God is a hypocrite, too, giving with one hand and taking with the other. And that is not the God that I want to preach.

James is a tough nut to crack. And I fear that I have already ventured too far into the ditch on the other side, run right over the rumble strip, and landed wheels up in the creek. So I will leave you with this word of grace. You are the image of God. You are the Body of Christ. Because of Christ, you have been given the power to be who God has made you to be. Because Christ has conquered sin and death, and even the grave, you are free. Free to be the kind and compassionate, generous and loving, and most of all whole and well, person that God sees when God looks into your face. That is the face that you are empowered and invited to share with the whole world.