Proper 17 Year B
The week before last, sensing a need to draw aside for renewal, I made plans for a day at Westminster Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Mission, B.C.to be quiet in that community and to attend the prayer services in the monastery church, where the continuous round of prayer deeply rooted in Scripture – especially the Book of Psalms, focuses me on God.
While in that quiet day my focus was drawn to today's reading from the Epistle of James; particularly the words “welcome with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
I went up to Westminster Abbey in order to cooperate with God in the salvation of my soul. And by the soul I mean that depth in us from which we live. That depth in us is to be carefully protected and tended, as one would a garden.
I was aware that I was getting tired and stressed in concerns of pastoral ministry and administration of the congregation in a time of change. I was aware that in that condition the world – especially as mediated through mass media, looks more threatening and discouraging to me than it should look, and that my soul was crying out to be nourished and strengthened.
The Book of Common Prayer is so helpful in learning to recognize and diagnose diseases of the soul.
Take the Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent, for example, a prayer that's been around since the eighth century:
“Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul....”
Our soul is given us as a place of depth to encounter the living God. But this world knows forces that rebel against God, from which our souls are vulnerable to attack. I made my plans agreeing with the Collect that “I had no power in myself to help myself.” Only God could supply that power. And for God to supply that power, I needed to be focused on receiving what James calls “the implanted word which is able to save our souls.”
The need for salvation of the soul is apparent in the community to which James the Apostle writes. They were troubled by a lack of basic hospitality toward one another which divided rich from poor, and by flashpoints of anger in the community which destroyed trust.
So he writes “rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word.”
I have the image here of my wife's work to rid a hillside of blackberries and knotweed in order that a garden may grow. Blackberries and knotweed are the “sordidness” and “rank growth”. Her intent is to implant new life in place of that “rank growth”.
And what is the “implanted word” of which James speaks?
The implanted word is the Gospel, the Good News. That Good News addresses two key questions we have.
“Who is God?” is the first question.
“Who are you?” is the second question.
To the first question comes the answer, and it is a good news.
“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.”
God is the generous giver, whose attitude of giving never changes. God is the origin of all good gifts; not just those good gifts given by Christians, but good gifts from whatever source.
The knowledge of this truth, if implanted in our souls, is able to save us.
Salvation comes when we receive this truth; when it shapes the answer to the second question: “Who are you (we)?”
We are those loved by God, given birth into the knowledge of this love, and made a kind of “first fruit” of this garden that God is planting in order that the world might be saved by Love.
God is a giver who loves to give and never stops giving good things. The purpose of it all is that we should grow in depth and power of soul; souls responsive to God's generosity. James characterizes that soul-work as producing people who are quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; and who make a community in which the most vulnerable can be safe, whether orphans or widows or anyone who in today's categories is at risk of falling out of society.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, a great preacher in New York City's Riverside Church many years ago, made the observation that in his experience, “those who reflect upon their lives and conclude that they have received far less than they deserve tend to be among those from whom no great living comes. Others evaluate their lives, thinking they have broken about even, and conclude that they got about what they had earned. Rarely do you see any exceptional living from either. However, those who readily reckon that they have received far more than they deserved are among those who have indulged in great living.”
(As quoted by Peter Rhea Jones, from Fosdick’s RIVERSIDE SERMONS, New York, Harper, 1958, p. 174)
The implanted word that is able to save our souls is the word that speaks to us God's infinite generosity.
God's generosity is present, not just on Sundays, but every day of the week. It is present when at work or in family life or other human endeavors we are patient with each other, more ready to listen to each other than to lay a lot of words on each other, and ready to make space for one another. It is present to us when that grace is extended to us from anyone.
Finally, a question:
What are you doing to prepare yourself to receive this impanted Word of God's generosity?
Do you immediately get up and turn on the news, flooding your consciousness with a psychic overload of the world's detritus? Is that the only thing flooding your soul during the day and when you go to bed at night? If this is so, you'll soon be in trouble.
The Church commends to us rest, contemplation of beauty, and the discipline of daily prayer, in which, for a few minutes at least, we are nourished from the Scripture and the Prayer of the Church, quieting our soul to hear the still, small voice of God speaking generously. My Bishop gave me a copy of a small book of Prayer called Hour By Hour, which makes readily accessible portions of the Book of Common Prayer and the Scripture for prayer in the morning, at noon, in the evening, and just before bed. It's available from Forward Movement Publications.
I mentioned how wonderful the Book of Common Prayer is for the soul. Hear again the words of today's Collect; how fitly it sums up today's reading from James:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name, increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.