September 8, 2009

Game Maxims

Year B, Proper 18, RCL, James 2:1-17

September 6, 2009

Christ Church, New Bern, NC

It is an honor to be with you this morning on what I pray will be the first of many days, weeks and months ahead. I won’t spend a lot of time introducing myself this morning, since I know that we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other, if not today then sometime in the near future.

One thing I will share about myself today is that I am a big sports fan. With few exceptions and to my wife’s chagrin, I will watch just about any game at any time, especially if it is college football. This weekend was like a buffet of football joy. Having been born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, I am, of course, a die hard University of Tennessee football fan. We have high hopes for Lane Kiffin, UT’s new coach, but we’ll have to see how the month of September goes.

The most famous coach in Tennessee football history was General Robert E. Neyland. So beloved that they named the football stadium and two streets after him, Coach Neyland also developed his Seven Game Maxims. A maxim is an expression of a general truth or a principle or a rule of conduct. “If we do these seven things, we can’t help but win,” he used to tell his teams. “The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win the game.” “Protect our kickers, our quarterback, our lead and our ball game.” “Carry the fight to the opponent, and keep it there for 60 minutes.” These maxims were developed before World War Two, and have been adopted by football coaches around the country. General Neyland’s simple and true statements that players are expected to keep in their thoughts while they are on the playing field. Coach Neyland would say that none was more important than the other, and all of them led his teams to substantial success during his tenure. When each player buys into those maxims and does their best to live those maxims on the field, the team as a whole is stronger and more cohesive.

The letters in the New Testament are filled with maxims from Saint Paul in his letters, especially to Timothy and to the Corinthians. Starting with last week’s Epistle, and continuing for the next several weeks, we hear from the apostle James, the brother of Jesus, some of the most direct truths about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the most sincere way possible. While my appreciation for St. Paul grew over my time in seminary, the Book of James have always stood out to me as some of the most clear and concise messages in our scriptures about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. What stands out to me the most about James is the practical nature of almost everything he talks about. While Saint Paul will sometimes go through Richmond while trying to drive from New Bern to Raleigh, James just says it like it is, in timeless language (and excellent translations from the Greek). Last week we heard him say to be doers of the Word, and not simply hearers. Don’t simply read the recipe, do the recipe. Don’t simply look at the stop sign at the intersection, obey that stop sign. This week’s lesson, building on that maxim, gives us the famous exposition on faith versus works. I would encourage you to read the rest of chapter two of the book of James. Today’s lesson only paints part of the picture, and the rest of chapter two expands on James’ views of the importance of living our faith out loud. And just as a preview, next week’s lesson from James is about keeping our tongue in check; something I am certain none of the faithful gathered today has ever had problem with.

The issues that James is tackling in the first part of chapter 2, most likely a letter to the church in Jerusalem, are in some ways what Paul was tackling with the Corinthians. In First Corinthians 11, Paul has to address the disparity that was happening at the Eucharist, where the wealthy were feasting and the poor went hungry. There was no sense of sacrifice, no thought of reaching out to those who had less, no thought of offering your second coat to the person who doesn’t have one. Paul did not take kindly to this. In a similar way, James is challenging the church in Jerusalem to think about how they react to those who might not be dressed as nicely or appear as well off when they graced the doors of the church, wherever that church might have been meeting. He doesn’t seem to think that they would treat the poorer looking visitor nearly as well as they’d treat the wealthier looking visitor. I believe Jesus had a few scenes dealing with that exact same issue, chiding those who would cast out the woman who was wiping his feet with her tears.

And in much the same vein, he is challenging them to think about how their faith is limited if they do not follow that faith with action. To simply say, “Yes, I believe in Jesus,” is not enough if you aren’t willing to reach out to those who are both poor in spirit and poor in the wallet. If someone says, “I’m hungry,” and all we say is “Well, Jesus loves you,” without pointing them towards Religious Community Services or even offering them a bite to eat, then what good is our faith?

Faith by itself is like having a great new set of tires without having the car to put them on. They’ll only get you so far. Our actions are the evidence that we are living our faith. Faith is a verb, not a noun. It is something that we have and something we do, simultaneously. Like General Neyland’s Seven Game Maxims, neither is more important than the other one.

None of these instructions from James or any of the other New Testament writers are about being better follower of Christ than the person next to you. In fact, I’d say it’s quite the opposite. It’s about being a better follower of Christ today than you were yesterday. There is this tension that we hold between our corporate following of Christ and our personal following of Christ. We live in this community, not only of Christ Church, but with Christians around the world, of a people called to a daily renewal and deepening of our individual relationships with Christ. In doing so, we strengthen our corporate bond with Christ. If we are following James’ counsel, then we will be compelled to set aside our own egos to make room for the person whose body and soul may be struggling. If we are going to not only be hearers of the word but doers, to actually live the words of Christ, then our relationship with Christ, both as individuals and as a community can’t help but grow.

I pray that as we continue to grow in the grace of God, that we will find new ways to live our faith, to care for all those who may be lacking in physical and spiritual needs, and to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.