2021-09-19 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
You may have played the board game Clue with your kids or grandkids. It’s the classic “who-dunnit” mystery game. You need to solve the murder by deducing who did the crime, in what location with what weapon. It might have been Colonel Mustard, in the Library with the lead pipe. Or maybe Mrs. Peacock in the Study with the revolver! It’s a lot of fun to analyze the clues that are provided and try to solve the crime. The funny thing about Clue though is that you solve the who, the what and the where, but you never find out the why. Why did Professor Plum club Miss Scarlett with a candlestick in the Conservatory?! Perhaps we will never know! The motive shall remain a mystery forever!
But motive is the name of the game today with St. James the jack-hammer! His words keep chipping away at us again this week. He writes “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic”_ (James 3:13-15). James’ main point here is all about the motive for our Good Works. They should be done from a heart redeemed by Christ the crucified. Because Jesus has died for me to forgive and set me free, I want to serve God by serving my neighbour. My motive to help others and do good is Christ. But St. James warns that our sinful nature always wants to rear its ugly head. Jealousy, selfish ambition and other wrong motives aren’t heavenly minded at all. Instead it’s the opposite. It’s earthly, unspiritual and outright demonic! Strong words from the jack-hammer indeed!
I remember being back in highschool English class. We were reading our Chaucers and our Shakespeares and honing up on our grammar all the other riveting things that come with English class. Somehow we got on to the topic of ethics. People were opining that “doing the right thing” in life is good because it means you are a “nice person.” You help people. You be kind. You don’t judge anyone. And on and on. Our teacher brought up the topic of her sponsor child that she supported. This child and his family now had a goat and an education and a new pair of shoes because of her financial contribution. “Helping others,” she said “just makes me feel good inside!” And herein lies the trap that St. James warns us about.
Good works like charity, kindness, helping others if they are done because “they make me feel good” well, they tend to miss the point. They have lost the heavenly source. They have lost the spiritual motive. Ok, but do sponsor children really care about your motive? Not really. They have food and shoes and things to sustain them and make things better for them in this earthly life. So why does it matter? Why are we even talking about this? I’m glad you asked!
One cold winter’s day a crowd of people stood in front of a pet store window. There were smiles all around as they watched a litter of chubby yellow Labrador puppies snuggling up to each other. One woman chuckled to herself and said “What a delightful picture of brotherhood! Just look at how those cute little puppies instinctively keep each other warm!” A stalwart Lutheran in the back quickly burst her kumbaya bubble when he said “No ma’am. They’re keeping themselves warm!”
What is the motive and why does it matter? For our Christian lives it matters, even if on the outside it really doesn’t seem like it does. The difference and distinctive factor is that Christians ought to do good things and good works because of what has already been given to us. This is of course the cross of Christ that I’m talking about. But most people come at it from the earthly perspective of gaining something either from God or a feeling from themselves in the case of my English teacher. Doing this good thing makes me feel good inside. Or, by doing this good thing God will bless me. I’ll gain God’s favour by what I do.
And this takes us full circle back to the Reformation and Martin Luther. I’ll buy this indulgence with money from the church and it will cancel out the red in my ledger. Or, I’ll say 10 Hail Mary prayers and God will make my business 17% more profitable. This is indeed how our sinful nature works and thinks and operates every day of our lives. But we must keep these spiritual ducks in a row. Do we do good works to gain a reward from God or a feeling from ourselves or do we do good works because of what Christ has done for us through His life, death and resurrection? That’s the point Jackhammer James is making.
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (4:3). Here, St. James brings up the biblical idea of passions – urges, disordered appetites, or longings that violently take possession of the soul. Anger, jealousy, gluttony, greed, lust for power, pride, can all become passions, just to name a few. They start out as “little” sins, then they are repeated over and over again and become “big” habitual sins, much like addictions, entrenched in our sinful souls. Even good things done in selfish gain can become a passion. These passions further our sinful fragmentation and separation from God by making us “friends with the world” – and enemies of God. Yet we know that God has called us out of this darkness through our Baptism into Christ. We know that God is rich in mercy and grace to not only forgive all of our sins in Christ, but also call us to a new life, helping us conquer our selfish passions, pick up our cross and follow after Jesus our Lord.
The healing that the Gospel of Christ offers to people is transformation. It isn’t self-help with a to do list of things to make us better people. Rather it is a complete transformation of who we are as sinful people who live for themselves or our own selfish gain, to a forgiven people who live for Christ Jesus our Lord. This then translates into living for others, helping others and doing good for others.
Many years ago we went camping in Manitoba at a place called Oak Lake. When we got there, I looked around the campsite. It was basically a lot full of humongous 5th wheels and motor homes interspersed with some nice but sparse oak trees. The motor home has allowed us to put all the conveniences of home on wheels. A camper no longer needs to contend with sleeping in a sleeping bag, cooking over a fire, or hauling water from a stream. Now he can park a fully equipped home on an asphalt slab in the midst of a few trees and hook up to a water line, a sewer line and electricity. Most of the camping units I saw had satellite dishes ensuring that you wouldn’t miss your favourite shows! This kind of camping luxury assures us no more bother with dirt, no more smoke from the fire, no more drudgery of walking to the stream. Now it is possible to go camping and never have to go outside! We buy motor homes and 5th wheels with the hope of seeing new places, of getting out into the world. Yet we deck it out with the same furnishings as in our living room. Thus nothing really changes. We may drive to a new place, set ourselves in new surrounding, but the newness goes unnoticed, for we’ve only carried along our old setting. New life in Christ begins when the comfortable patterns of our selfish passions are left behind.
Transformation has at its very heart the Gospel of Christ. The motive for all we do and indeed who we are is His cross and empty tomb. This heavenly reality makes us friends with God. Fully redeemed, justified and sanctified by His grace and mercy. In His Name, Amen.