Do-ers of the Word
Based on Psalm 124, Mark 7:24-37, James 2:1-17
A story is told of a man who a long time ago was seeking to convert to Judaism. He decided he needed to seek out the wisest rabbi to ask a definitive question before he made his final decision. At that time a great rabbi, Rabbi Hillel, was living in Palestine and so the man traveled to him to ask his question. Once he found the rabbi, he said, “While standing on one leg, can you summarize the whole of the Torah for me?” Rabbi Hillel stood on one leg and said to the man, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. All the rest is commentary; go and learn.”
Now, there are roughly 1000 pages in the Hebrew Bible – depending on translation and type font. Much happens in it and we can spend a lifetime with it and still not understand it well. For the rabbi to glean all of that writing and wisdom down to “love your neighbor as yourself” as another rabbi did many hundreds of years later, is the essence of wisdom. Our scriptures today echo this sentiment as we attempt once again to have God speak to us about how we should actively live out our faith. Before we can hear God’s voice today, let us prepare our hearts and minds with prayer. Won’t you join me?
Psalm 124 is reminding us today of the first part of the essence of Jesus’ teaching when he was asked by a lawyer what was the greatest commandment. Similar to the man who asked Rabbi Hillel the essence of Torah, Jesus told the man that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. The reason we should seek to do that is succinctly described in the verses of our Psalm today. The psalmist writes that if not for God, then all would have been lost. Foes would have “swallowed us up alive”, flood waters would have swept us away, predators would have eaten us up. All of these calamities would have kept us from living out our faith, if not for God’s intervention in our lives. The psalmist finishes with, “…Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth….” Teachers of prayer have long counseled that the most powerful prayer one can utter is, “God, help me!”
Our Gospel lesson and Epistle reading put this power, love of and thankfulness to God in action. In the Epistle, the writer of James is teaching the faithful that they have to enact the second part of Jesus’ answer to the lawyer, that of “loving neighbor as self” (or doing nothing hateful – just like Rabbi Hillel stated). The fledgling communities of “The Way” needed to understand how to form and sustain community. To do so, they needed to welcome people from all walks of life – no one being more important to the life of the community than another. They must be merciful as God has shown them mercy. They have to be do-ers of the word as well (as the writer stated in last week’s lesson). They cannot look on those who have less and simply wish them “good day”, they have to intervene and provide comfort and community to all who are in need. In this way, they fulfill the two commandments of Jesus.
Jesus travels to Gentile portions of ancient Palestine in today’s reading. Both the area around the port city of Tyre and the area around the Decapolis (meaning 10 cities) are Gentile dominated. Jesus may have gone there to get away from the Jewish crowds that kept after him. Yet, even here he encounters people in need. He tries to not help the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was possessed – yet his need to treat his neighbor as himself (and honor the woman’s faith in him) compelled him to act out his faith. Similarly, healing the man who was deaf and mute returned that Gentile man to full stature in his community. Jesus acted in both situations to honor his faith in God and to meet each person’s need the best he could.
Jesus was not just about teaching, he went about acting out his faith in ways that were sometimes controversial, but were always done to enhance the community of believers. Faith and action went hand-in-hand, even towards those who (like Gentiles and Samaritans) he was not called to serve. Scripture teaches us, “…But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves….” The writer of James taught us this last week – a sentiment that is amplified in our scripture readings today. Jesus’ actions show us that being doers of the word does not mean that we have to dogmatically follow the laws and rules of our faith, rather we are to apply our God-given empathy and love in ways that return all people to community. Those who are marginalized by life and by the power structure, need to have advocates like us who will roll up our sleeves and get down in the dirt with them. This means that we need to give a hand-up and not just a hand-out. How is it that we would want to be treated by those more fortunate if we ourselves fell on hard times? Rabbi Hillel reminds us not to do anything we hate to others…
Our founder, John Wesley, had a slightly different take on today’s theme when he promulgated his three rules. Anyone know them? Do all the good you can, do no evil, and practice the means of grace to grow in love with God. Wesley taught that if we have an active faith that we will seek – we will be compelled, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to do good deeds in the world – in fact, we will not be able keep from doing them. He and his band of Holy Club members visited the sick and imprisoned and spent time with the poor. John had grown up poor – and had a special affinity for those without means. As a professor at Oxford, he began his job at 30 pounds sterling a year. Knowing that he could live on that, he never lived more extravagantly. In fact, his yearly salary topped out at 1400 pounds, but he gave away 1370 pounds to persons in need. He was a doer of the word – not just a hearer. His monetary teaching to his flock was to earn all one possibly could so that one could maximize their philanthropy.
We find ourselves in the latter part of 2018 with money in the bank in both churches. We find ourselves at the same time in need of creating a budget for 2019. There are many ways in which we can become doers of the word. Now, we can’t live as a church or as people on 2% of one’s annual household income as John Wesley did for his last 60 years – but we can seek after persons and projects that need an investment of time, gifts and money. We can seek to become doers of the word and not just hearers by looking for those persons who do not have the saving love of Jesus in their lives, whose life situations are like the Syrophoenician woman or the deaf and dumb man. People who are not part of the community with which we usually surround ourselves. We can ask those on the front lines of the issues of today, how we might leverage our people and our money to invest in creating a stronger Madison County? In this way, becoming “Madison strong” can take on a very different communal connotation indeed.
Love of God leads to a strong faith which leads to the desire to be in right relationship with all of God’ creation. It leads to an openness of mind and heart to the leading of the Holy Spirit – to hearing the cries of the needy and then being moved to help. Being doers of the word will bring us into contact with persons and situations that we normally wouldn’t know about. Being doers of the word will bring us in contact with the many faces of God. Being doers of the word will teach us how to love our neighbor as ourselves – and in this way fulfill both God’s commandment and God’s intended purpose for us as followers, to build inclusive community focused on the teachings of Jesus. Amen and amen!