To live more nearly as we pray


Sermon for September 5th, 2021


Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Some of you know that part of the focus of my doctoral work has been on the writings of a priest from the 19th century named John Keble. In addition to being a priest he was actually quite an accomplished poet in his day. One of his poems is a hymn in our hymnal, hymn number 10, New every morning is the love. The hymn ends with what I might call a burn. You know what a burn is; a burn is when you cleverly or subtly, or maybe not so subtly, call someone out on their behaviour, usually pointing out their hypocrisy, but do so in a way that is not mean spirited but loving. The words kinda burn a little. Now Keble was a Victorian, so he’s very subtle, but I think he makes a point if you are paying attention.

The hymn ends:

Help us, this and every day, to live more nearly as we pray.

Help us, this and every day, to live more nearly as we pray.

Those words should sting just a little bit because of what they imply: we don’t always live as we pray. What we say we believe, or what we pray with our mouths does not always line up exactly with how we live our lives or what we demonstrate with our actions. Basically, Keble is saying that we are hypocrites, and his prayer in this line is “Lord, help us to be a little less hypocritical today.” Help us this day to live more nearly as we pray. 

Keble was not the first person to realize that Christians don’t always do a good job of living the faith that they proclaim. If you ever get frustrated with Church, the best thing you can do is go and read or study some of the epistles. You’ll learn really quickly that hypocrisy is nothing new. 

James does not mince words in his epistle this morning. 

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

James throws the sermon on the mount right in people’s faces: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Did you believe Jesus when he said that? Is basically what James is asking. When Jesus says forgive, when he says love, when he says judge not…do you believe him? James is pointing out to folks that they aren’t living the way they pray. Their beliefs and their actions are not lining up. 

James finally comes to the ultimate question: if your faith doesn’t change your life and the way you live, then what good is it? What good is it to say that you follow Jesus if you never pay any attention to what he actually says? What good is it to say that you believe in a God of mercy if you never actually show mercy yourself? 

There is a difference for James between living faith and dead faith. A living faith is one that is truly aware of just how much grace and mercy we have received from God and is always prepared to show that grace and mercy to others, even if imperfectly. A living faith always seeks to draw nearer to Christ, each and every day. A living faith is a faith the desires to respond to what God has done. And dead faith? Well a dead faith is a lot like an honorary degree: it is a title without necessarily having the knowledge that should go along with it. Christians need to have a living faith, not just a title, a t-shirt or a bumper sticker. 

We Christians, we have some powerful beliefs and prayers, we have a high calling as followers of Jesus Christ, but we are also always at least a little prone to being hypocrites, every one of us. It is a part of the human condition and it has always been a part of life in the church. Don’t worry…if you keep reading scripture I promise you, Jesus or one of his apostles will call you out on it. Sooner or later, God will have a little burn for you, a loving reminder that you still need work too. We all need a lot of help in our day to day lives to actually follow Jesus and not just give lip service to being Christians. 

So Lord, 

Help us, this and every day, to live more nearly as we pray.