Baruch, James, and You

God Has a Purpose: for Baruch, James, and You
A sermon preached at St. Paul’‘s Church, Bantam, Connecticut on the Festival of St. James the Apostle, July 25, 2010, by Christopher L. Webber, Vicar

If there are Sundays when the Old Testament is read and you find yourself thinking, “What was that all about?” I want you to know that there are days when I feel that way too. I spent five years in seminary and I’ve been ordained quite a while and I’ve been reading the Bible on an almost daily basis for a very long time, but when I first looked up the Old Testament reading for today I thought of changing my mind about marking St James Day after all.

I mean, we are free to celebrate the saints who fall on Sundays in Epiphany and Pentecost and I think by and large it’s a good idea.  I’ve never forgotten the church school child who told me once, “Only Roman Catholics have saints.” Well, No!  This, after all, is St. Paul’s Church and there’s St. Michael’s in Litchfield to the east and St. Andrew’s Marbledale to the west and St. John’s Washington to the south and there are Episcopal Churches in this diocese named for St. Francis, St. Alban, St. George, St Monica, St. Gabriel, and Bishop Seabury, among others. We don’t have a pope to tell us who’s a saint and who’s not; we have a General Convention to list Christians worth knowing from Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereshewsky to Enmegabowh and Kamehameha IV  You can find most of them listed in the calendar in the front of your Prayer Book.

So here we are with St James  – and an enigmatic passage from the prophet Jeremiah:

The word that the prophet Jeremiah spoke to Baruch son of Neriah, when he wrote these words in a scroll at the dictation of Jeremiah, in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah: Thus says the LORD . . .

I did some quick Bible study this week and I need to fill you in.  Go back in your minds 2600 years . . .  Or let me put it this way: God had been trying for centuries to get it across to the Chosen People that they had been called for a purpose and not for their own profit.  The idea was not that they should have their own country and get rich but that they should keep the commandments and be an example and witness to the power and justice and love of God as they had experienced it themselves.  But Jeremiah looked around as the prophets had been doing for two hundred years and he saw injustice and faithlessness and he saw inevitable judgment in consequence.

Jeremiah hated the job he had. Nobody likes to be negative all the time. But there were things that needed to be said and Jeremiah had to say them. And Jeremiah had a disciple named Baruch who was a scribe and who wrote down what Jeremiah said. And Baruch didn’t like his job either and I guess he had been complaining and so God gave Jeremiah a message for Baruch. “You say, ‘Woe is me; I am really tired of all this negativity.’  Well, listen up: God is on a mission to tear down and destroy and if you’re looking for some benefit for yourself, don’t bother.  It’s not going to happen. The only good news is, you won’t get killed yourself.”

So that’s the history.  Why do we get to read that on St James’ Day? Well the story of James comes in the second reading, from Acts, that tells us how James died.  Herod was looking to score some points in the popularity polls and he found out he could push his ratings up by killing Christians so James became the first of the apostles to die as a martyr. So what we have here is a pair of readings, one from the Old Testament and one from the New that tell us something about the hazards of serving God. It was St. Teresa who said, “O God, if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!”  Maybe the empty pews on Sunday belong to people who figured that out!

The Gospel, the third reading, as it usually does, gives us the message in much simpler terms: Jesus is talking to the apostles: James and John and Peter and Andrew.  James and John, you know, were brothers, and their mother had just come by to tell Jesus he ought to give her boys some reward: thrones in the kingdom. And Jesus didn’t turn her down.  They probably do have thrones in the kingdom. But first, he said, you have to get there, and between here and there it isn’t always an easy ride.  What Jesus wanted them to know was that the kingdom he proclaims has different priorities, a different agenda, a different style of leadership and it’s not about big rewards here and now.

There are those who go for power and use it for their own agenda. There were then.  There are now.  But that is not what serving Jesus is all about. Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave . . .”  So, yes, Baruch: it’s not always easy.  And, no, Mrs. Zebedee and James: it’s not about front row seats.  It’s about looking around you and seeing a world in need and knowing that God put you here for a purpose and the only way to live your life to serve God is to help meet that need.

Now the bright side of it is that you and I are not Baruch and not James. We get to be Christians in the richest state in the world’s richest country and Herod has gone to his reward and the Assyrians are not coming – not right away. The world we live in isn’t an easy place all the same.  We may have sons or daughters or near relatives deployed to the middle east; we may have relatives who are unemployed or be worried about our own jobs or facing our own particular challenges. But would you rather live in Haiti?  Would you rather live in the Middle East and never get rotated home?  For that matter, would you rather be Bill Gates and have everyone in the world after your money or Barak Obama and get blamed for everything that goes wrong?  Count your blessings!  But the point is very simple:  Jesus calls us to serve. The examples we get in today’s readings are pretty dramatic, but once you figure them out, they make the point: God’s value system is the reverse of ours.  We are not here for our own sake, but for the sake of others.

I happen to be more interested than many people in politics and I often see examples out there to help me make a point. I try not to chose up sides in public, but if you watch television at all and don’t mute it when the ads come on, you know we have an election coming up and a stranger assortment of candidates you will seldom find. All of them, however, tell us that they want to create jobs and cut taxes and so on.  “I have a plan” they tell us, to get things going again.” Well, I’m not interested in their plan.  I want to know one thing: “What have you done to serve others?  What have you done already to meet the needs of the world?”  I don’t ask whether the candidate is in church every Sunday or even if they are Christians. but I want to be able to vote for someone whose priorities are somewhat similar to the gospel’s, who seem to have a deep understanding of the needs of the neediest and put those needs first. As a Christian, I am not looking for the candidate who will do something for me but the one who wants to do something for others.

Jesus and James and Jeremiah and Baruch knew about oppressive governments in a way we probably never will. The tax system was unbelievably unfair.  There were no good schools.  There was no health care system. But the message was “Go and serve.  Serve those whose needs are greater than yours. That’s what God made you to do.  That why you are here.”

I kind of like the fact that that strange Old Testament reading features Baruch complaining about the hand God dealt him. “Woe is me!” says Baruch, “I am so tired I could die.” And God says to Baruch, “You know what?  It’s going to get worse. You live in a country so far from my purpose that they will be wiped out. But your bonus is, you will go into exile with everyone else but you will survive.  You will survive.”

I can’t help but worry when I read that.  God does have a purpose and the purpose is not the good life for Americans.  The purpose is justice and mercy and peace.
When we give in proportion to our income,
when we find time to serve others in some way,
when we make political choices in keeping with the needs of others,
when we pray regularly for justice and peace,
when we pay attention to the Bible readings
and think about them from time to time during the week,
when we try to see our world in terms of God’s purpose,
you can’t count on getting rich or having all your problems solved but you will have the peace of mind of knowing that you are part of that great company of saints who chose that same path and served God’s purpose and changed the world.

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