Saturday, September 1, 2012

It's All Gift from the Father of Lights

Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead
Installation of Pastors Matthew McWaters, Laura Stancher and C.J. Valenti
September 2, 2012
James 1:17-27

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

The last leg of our journey involved a slow ride on a dusty road up into the highlands north of Managua.   Our 4-wheel drive land-rover, painfully navigated the wash-boardy gravel path, until finally we reached our destination in a remote rural area of Nicaragua

As soon as we stopped, fireworks announced our arrival.   Fiesta time!  The mariachi band was already “cooking,” neighbors gathering in a makeshift tent-chapel, all dressed up on a Monday morning to pray and sing and hear from dignitaries….as we faced an “altar” piled high with squash and melons from local gardens.

And the object of all this fuss wasn’t really the arrival of three ELCA synod bishops and the president of Lutheran World Relief.

No, the object of our attention appeared to be much more modest:   a balloon-festooned well-- bubbling up cool, clear water from 130 feet below the ground.  

“El agua es la vida” we heard---Water is life.   So sing, light bottle rockets, and turn the crank on that well—men, women, children—everyone taking their turn.    Because persons who used to trudge 5 kilometers to bathe and draw water from a muddy river now have safe well-water, right in their midst.

When we norteamericanos sat down with the local well committee—eight community leaders who had guided this project---when we asked them what this new well meant in their lives….their first response was this:  This water is God’s gift to us.”   El agua es la vida—from God’s fatherly hand.

And that was more than pious palaver from people trying to impress the obispos—the visiting bishops.  No, this confession flowed straight from their faithful hearts, as clear and clean as the water that had brought us together.

We pressed them, though:  “Who’s permitted to drink from your new well?” we asked.

Members of the well committee quickly replied: “Everyone!”

“Do you really mean that everyone can drink from this well? Even those who don’t pay the monthly water tax?”

“Yes,” they insisted. “God gave us this water. Lutheran World Relief helped us access this water--and we must share it in solidarity with all who are thirsty.”   

It was as if these sisters and brothers were “channeling” the opening lines of this morning’s Second Lesson:  “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.”

If something—anything—good comes your way, my dear friends, luck has nothing to do with it.  

If anything good and true and beautiful plops itself down in your lap:   pretend it has a big red ribbon tied around it, a gift straight from the heart of the Father of lights….the God of all creation….who is utterly, completely “for you” and who will not anytime soon change his mind about you.

This gracious truth, that came home to me two weeks ago in the outback of Nicaragua, comes home for all of this morning as we dwell in God’s Word.   All we are and have is pure gift, coming down from the Father of lights, “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

God is not wishy-washy about you or me or anyone else.   God is steadfast and sure, God’s regard for us unwavering, unalterable in his overflowing love for us and for everyone.   This core truth about God has become the center of our lives through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Pretty good stuff, wouldn’t you agree?  

…Especially as it comes to us from the book of the Bible that Martin Luther nicknamed the “epistle of straw!”

For you see, in the first edition of Luther’s translation of the New Testament, published in 1522, the Great Reformer was pretty blunt:  “In fine, Saint John’s Gospel and his first epistle, Saint Paul’s epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Saint Peter’s first epistle—these are the books which show thee Christ, and teach thee everything that is needful and blessed for thee to know even though thou never see or hear any other book or doctrine.   Therefore is Saint James’s epistle a right strawy epistle in comparison with them, for it has no gospel character to it.”

If the Letter of James had any practical use, Luther mused, its pages could well be torn out of the Bible and used for kindling in your fireplace.

Really, Brother Martin?  Whatever got into you?

What got into Martin Luther was all the stuff that comes after the first two verses of our Second Lesson—all the stuff about what we should do and avoid, how we shall live and conduct ourselves with one another….all the ways that faith brings forth sound and (dare we say it?) good works in our lives.

Locked in the doctrinal struggles of the 16th century Reformation, when the church seemed to be teaching Christians to perform meritorious works to get on God’s good side….when reformers were lifting up faith alone as the sure basis of our “rightness” with God….Luther lashed out at James’s apparent over-emphasis on good works.

But wait. 

In the midst of this titanic church struggle, another word emerged:  “Faith….is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God….It makes us altogether different persons, in heart and spirit and mind and powers…..[Faith] is a living, busy, active, mighty thing….It is impossible for [faith] not to be doing good works incessantly.   It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them.”

Who said that?   James, the writer of this Epistle of Straw?  

No.  That is Luther, seemingly talking out of the other side of his mouth, in his preface to the Epistle to the Romans!

It is as if Luther himself, peered ever deeper into the alleged conflict between faith alone and good works, and he realized that faith is never alone….that is not like a lifeless stick or a dead stone…but that faith is vibrantly alive, and like every other living being, faith transforms us and our world.  

Faith bears good fruit, as inevitably and abundantly as this summer’s apple crop, even in a season of drought here in the Midwest. 

And it’s all gift, from the Father of lights!

All the good things we know we don’t deserve…it’s all gift from the Father of lights.

And all the ways we find ourselves grasping and responding to these gifts….that’s all gift, too, from the Father of lights.

So if you listen more than you speak, and if you speak in measured ways (what a concept, especially in this nasty political campaign season!)…

….and if you curb your anger, or if you seek to generate more light than heat with your heartfelt opinions….it’s all gift from the Father of lights.

And when you “rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,”….it’s all gift from the Father of lights.

And when you “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls”….that too is all gift from the Father of lights.

And when your hearing of God’s Word sets your hands in motion and moves your feet toward widows and orphans, enacting God’s Word….guess what:  it’s all gift from the Father of lights.

You get the picture, my friends.   And what a word this is for a time like this in Trinity’s life and mission!

For today we welcome three new Transition into Ministry pastors—Matt, Laura and C.J.    Believe you me:  They have performed many works of the law, good works to arrive here.  

They have rolled up their sleeves and mastered Greek, learned exegesis, studied church history, practiced pastoral care.  They have survived harrowing internships and the perilous ELCA candidacy process and the daunting call process…..they have been been poked, prodded, examined, approved….and even “pasturized” by the rite of ordination.  And they stand before you today, ready to jump into ministry with both feet….

….but here’s the deal:  all their energy and skills and imagination and hard work…’s all sheer gift, from the Father of lights….

And the same goes for everything else that might be on our minds this morning—the fleeting hours of summer’s last holiday weekend, anticipation of a new school year, the start of a new program year here at Trinity, and the senior pastor call process over which your congregation and call committee have been earnestly praying and laboring…..all of these “good works”…it’s all gift from the Father of lights.

And if everything we are and have, everything that commands our attention and our energy, if it’s all sheer gift from the Father of lights---how…how can it be anything but good?

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

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