To care for orphans and widows in their distress: A sermon for Proper 17, Year B

September 1, 2012

When Episcopalians gather to worship on Sundays, we expect the familiar. We repeat our liturgy week after week, with relatively little variation. We sing from the same hymnal, and usually hymns that we have sung often before. We sit in the same pews, we greet the same people.

Visitors or newcomers have a very different experience. They may have no idea what is going on, whether to kneel or stand, which book to use, what’s coming next. Everything to them is unfamiliar, unknown. They often find our worship disorienting. They certainly find our building disorienting. Over time, if they have the stamina, the courage, the obstinacy to persist, they too will come to find our worship familiar and comfortable, and before long, they might even complain if something is different.

Our worship is so familiar that we may not even notice if there is change. But I hope all of you find today’s worship somewhat disorienting. In the 10:00 service, we will be changing Eucharistic prayers, not changing for the sake of change, but in order for us to hear familiar words in a slightly different way, to reflect on what they might mean. For all of us today, we will be hearing from new biblical texts. In the case of the first reading, from the Hebrew Bible, we read from the Song of Solomon, the only time we read this text in the three-year lectionary cycle. The second lesson comes from the letter of James, which we will read for the next four Sundays as well. And the gospel brings us back to the Gospel of Mark after a five week detour into John’s gospel.

What’s especially disorienting for those of you who have been paying attention to the lectionary readings this summer is the sudden appearance of the Song of Solomon. Undoubtedly, it is there because we have been hearing the story of the Israelite monarchy, the rise of David and Solomon. The Song of Solomon, as the title suggests, is associated with King Solomon, and is included as an example of the writings associated or attributed to him. In fact, it is erotic poetry filled with sensual imagery, as two lovers speak to and about one another. It has also been interpreted both in the Jewish and Christian traditions, as an allegory of God’s love, in Judaism’s case, God’s love for the Jewish people, in the Christian case, as Christ’s love for the church, or Christ’s love for the individual soul.

The letter of James is something of an anomaly among the writings of the New Testament. While it’s called a “letter” scholars actually debate what genre it is. While it has the form of a letter, it is not an an actual piece of correspondence. As we will see over the next few weeks, it is a collection of ethical advice, using imagery from biblical as well as Hellenistic sources. It’s generic, there’s very little in it that would characterize it as Christian. Even the author is unknown, the title attributes it to James, clearly an apostolic reference, and it’s clear that the author identifies Jesus as Lord, and awaits his return. It’s likely, given the overall tone and concerns of the text, that it was written in a relatively poor Christian community, for the text is concerned throughout with issues of wealth and poverty.

Today’s passage begins with two key thoughts, one having to do with God, the other with human nature. We know God’s goodness by God’s generosity—everything we have comes from God. Indeed we ourselves reflect God’s nature because we are the first fruits of God’s creation. Because God created us we should show forth God’s goodness in all that we do.

After a few words of advice, to which I will return in a minute, the author then puts before us a familiar image, that of a mirror. Look at yourself, he says, what do you see? What do we use mirrors for? To check our appearance, to make sure we look OK before going out in public, perhaps even to make sure that the blemishes and faults we know in ourselves are concealed from the public. But this mirror is for another purpose.

What do you see? The author encourages us to see our nature, our goodness, given by God, and to allow that image and understanding govern our behavior. We are created by God, blessed by God, brought to new life by God. And what are the consequences for us of such self-knowledge? We will allow God’s goodness to reign in our hearts and in our actions. We will be doers of the word, not hearers only. We will take to heart the final words in the passage: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Now there are all sorts of definitions of religion, of Christianity out there. There are those who would say the heart of Christianity is nothing else than salvation, having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” To outsiders, non-Christians, it often seems that Christianity can be reduced to certain positions on certain social issues—opposition to gay marriage or abortion. For some progressive Christians, Christianity seems little more than a social service agency; it’s all about outreach and not the gospel. And it’s easy to hear these words from James and reduce our faith to that.

But remember where this begins—in a recognition of who God is and what God has done for us. Our faith begins in the knowledge of God, not simply intellectual knowledge, but an understanding and experience of God’s goodness, revealed in God’s gifts to us, and in our experience of new life in Christ. From that experience of new life, all else should flow. For James, what matters is that our good works, our ethical behavior is a natural response and outgrowth of our experience of God.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress.” I began this morning by talking about our disorientation. There may be nothing that should disorient us more than these verses. Even if we acknowledge their potency and truth, they should challenge us to reflect on where we place our priorities and energies and to reflect on what brings us to church on a Sunday morning.

Caring for widows and orphans in their distress. These two terms, widows and orphans, are biblical language for the most vulnerable in society. Throughout scripture, both Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is deep concern for the weakest members of society, those who can’t take care of themselves, those who have no family or other connections that will care for them. It is so common a theme that it becomes a refrain, both in the legal material as well as in the prophets. For James to make this claim is to put this text squarely in the biblical tradition, as he reminds his listeners that such concern is as central to the gospel of Jesus Christ as it was to the law of Moses.

In our context, these words may strike us as blindingly obvious. It may also be that we need to be reminded of them again and again. It’s easy to proclaim our concern for the less fortunate. It’s much more difficult to put our concern into action. And in our particular cultural and political context, to voice a concern for the widow and orphan is to put our selves outside of the mainstream. Both political parties seem intent on ignoring the deep needs of our society, the growing division between rich and poor, haves and have-nots.

I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s worth repeating. A few weeks ago, I came out of the office in mid-afternoon and encountered a man sitting on the steps. I went over to him and engaged him in conversation. He asked about the shelter and eventually told me that he had been released from the VA hospital earlier that day, and sent here to spend the night. In short, he had been released from the hospital into homelessness. This was not an isolated incident.

A society that abandons its widows, orphans, and yes, veterans, is a society in deep distress. A society that would rather focus on images and platitudes, on winning battles of words or exploiting politicians’ gaffes, is a society mired in sin. Our response to such stories like the one I just related may be outrage, anger, or sadness, but that’s not enough. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to take care of widows and orphans in their distress. Let us turn our concern into action, and let us also ask our neighbors and our country, to share our concern and to care for those in need.

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